Dr. Riley’s Crossing


The patient came to Boston City Hospital in fall 1929 after two weeks of difficulty urinating, when he noticed “a watery foul-smelling pus coming from an opening just above the pubis.” The patient was a 52-year-old African-American man, likely poor in money and education, who arrived in the urologist’s office pale and weak, reeking of urine and rotting flesh. The doctor, the same age as his patient, was a urologist and Harvard professor, graduate of Oberlin College ’03 and Harvard Medical School ’07. Dr. Augustus Riley lived at a posh address in Boston, 857 Beacon Street, and went golfing on weekends with other physicians. Dr. Riley would publish an account of this surgery in The New England Journal of Medicine.

A surgical photo shows the scrotum of this African-American male. Dr. Riley’s paper doesn’t mention the race of his patient, but you can tell from the dark pigmentation of his hand, holding up the hospital gown to expose his “gangrenous peritoneum.” In the black-and-white photograph, now in the archives at Harvard’s Countway Medical Library, the patient’s abdomen is punctured with holes, his penis attached to the catheter that saved his life. The nasty-looking gashes to the right of the patient’s belly-button are the surgical treatment for urinary extravasacation: incisions of the abdominal wall to drain urine that has leaked out of the vasa, or tubes, poisoning the abdomen. The resulting gangrene, without the aid of modern antibiotics, almost certainly killed him, according to present-day surgeon Dr. Norman McGowin. But such cases nevertheless required documentation and attempts at treatment.

Dr. Riley published this article at the height of his career as a surgeon and professor in Boston. But his life at Harvard was only possible because the doctor hid a secret. On the day this photo was taken in 1929, the patient was not the only black man in the room.

Gus Riley’s mother, Sallie McCreary, was born a slave.

Dr. Riley’s hometown was Riley, Alabama, named for his relatives, Enoch and Tom, who had cotton plantations there before the Civil War. The Riley brothers married sisters, Saphronia and Elizabeth Autry, daughters of a local planter. Gus grew up at the mercantile store of his father, Confederate Captain Thomas Mercer Riley Jr. (1840-1935) known as “Riley’s Crossing.” Captain Tom was wounded at the battles of Seven Pines and Gettysburg and commanded the Confederate 5th Alabama regiment, from the Battle of Bull Run to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, when he was twenty-five. The Captain walked with a cane because of three war wounds and was known by his Confederate nickname, “Cappie.” For the rest of his life, Cappie kept in touch with the surviving members of the 5th Alabama and hosted Confederate reunions at his home in Monroe County.

Riley’s Crossing is a few miles from Monroeville, where the novelists Harper Lee and Truman Capote were born. Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, about the trial of a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, is set near Dr. Riley’s hometown. Thanks to Lee’s book and the 1965 movie, Monroe County may be the most famously racist place on earth. But back in 1877, when Gus Riley was born, the Deep South was not only racist, but also crushingly poor.


Image courtesy Kathy McCoy

When Cappie returned after the Confederate surrender, he fell in love with sixteen-year-old Sallie, whose surname McCreary came from her master at the Turnbull Plantation. Part black, part Creek Indian, and part white, Sallie may have been the daughter of her master and one of his slaves. After being sexually harassed by the sons of her former master, Sallie fled to Flat Creek, Tom’s father’s plantation, where she was living when Cappie returned home after the war. In the summer of 1865, the twenty-five year-old white war-veteran met his 16-year-old black bride-to-be in the town where they had both grown up: she a slave, he a slave-owner’s son.

So, Gus Riley, the fourth child of this union, spent the first twenty-two years of his life as a black man in the South.

Gus wanted out, though, from a young age. As a teenager, Gus told his older sister Mattie, “I’m not about to spend the rest of my life behind a mule.” Gus, who like Mattie, was light-skinned and smart, tried to persuade his older sister to leave with him.

At Oberlin College in Ohio, where Gus transferred after a year at the all-black college Fisk University in Nashville, he lived in the “colored students” dorm. He is listed in the “Negro Graduates of Oberlin College 1844-1972” as one of five negroes who graduated in 1903. When Gus applied to Harvard Medical School, though, he identified himself as white, for the first time in his life. At that point, as historian Kathy McCoy puts it, “He left behind his mother and his four siblings and any connection he had with his black roots.” A family friend recalled the story of Gus’ Harvard graduation in 1907, as McCoy relates in her book. He wired his father an invitation to the graduation, but Captain Riley wired back “he could not come, but would send mother.” Gus reportedly wrote back “Don’t send Mama.”

Dr. Riley married a white woman in Boston and worked among white doctors at Harvard, none of whom knew he was black. He returned to Alabama only twice, for the funerals of Sallie in 1928 and of Cappie in 1935—a year after his last surgical publication, on “incontinence of urine.”

Now, a hundred years after Gus Riley left the south for Boston, I find myself in the Harvard archives, looking at what’s left of my great-great-great uncle’s papers: six surgical case studies, which he published in the 1920s. These include a report on deaths due to the drug “alypin,” or amydricaine—a local anesthetic similar to cocaine, which Dr. Riley discovered can cause seizures and death when injected into a “traumatized urethra”; a 1926 report on syphilis of the bladder; and a 1934 account of a 16-year-old girl who was suffering from incontinence due to “utereal ectopia.” Dr. Riley was able to fix the girl’s embarrassing problem with surgery.

It was not until the 2004 publication of “Against All Odds: The Legacy of Students of African American Descent at Harvard Medical School before Affirmative Action 1850-1968” that Augustus Riley was revealed as a man of African-American descent. The author, Nora Niecessen, found that the Oberlin College Records list Augustus Riley as a Negro graduate, which made him the 12th black student to graduate from Harvard Medical School. Dr. Riley is the first known African-American student to have passed as white at HMS. His decision to cross race boundaries allowed his distinguished career as a member of the faculty. It was not until 1949, three years after Gus Riley retired, that William Hinton became the first openly black professor at Harvard Medical School.

Mattie Image courtesy Kathy McCoy www.rileyscrossing.com

Image courtesy Kathy McCoy

When Gus Riley’s parents, Tom and Sallie, had their first child together in 1870, they committed a crime. Miscegenation (Latin miscerare “to mix” + genus “kinds”), the mixing of races, was against the law in Alabama until 1967, when the Supreme Court banned all U.S. laws against biracial marriage in the landmark case Loving v. Virginia.

Dr. Riley’s draw to the thrill of cutting people open and fixing what ails them apparently ran in our family. My cousin Norman is now a medical student at Northwestern, and my sister True an aspiring pediatrician at an indigent hospital in Birmingham. My mother’s first-cousin Norman McGowin is the only general surgeon in Chapman, Alabama, the rural lumber-town where he and my mother grew up. I spend every summer with our family, the white Riley descendants, an hour’s drive from Riley’s Crossing.

Last July 4th weekend I drove out to Riley with my dad. We found two cemeteries there. In one is buried the southern veteran, Captain Tom, father of Dr. Riley. Confederate flags adorn his grave, surrounded by the headstones of his white parents and siblings—owners of Riley Plantation. The second graveyard holds the bones of Sallie McCreary and her children: black Rileys. Sallie lies forever beside four of her five children: the four who didn’t leave, the four who stayed black. But where is Gus, the Riley who crossed over?

Dr. Augustus Riley passed away on May 16, 1966, at a nursing home in Boston. He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Thirteen hundred miles from the red-clay dirt where he was born, Gus was laid to rest beside U.S. senators, poets, and Harvard’s famous doctor-author Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes’ son, the future Supreme Court Justice, fought at Antietam against Dr. Riley’s father Captain Tom, just after graduating Harvard. The first time a Holmes was in the same place with a Riley, Gus’ mother was a slave—his father fighting a war to keep her that way. By the time Augustus came to lie beside the elder Holmes, he wasn’t the only black professor at Harvard—but he was the only one who took his racial secret to the grave.

Sallie, with Riley's brother John Image courtesy Kathy McCoy www.rileyscrossing.com

Sallie, with Riley’s brother John
Image courtesy Kathy McCoy