Finding Josie

“Forgetful of self, she gave her life for others.”

Finding Josie wasn’t something I intentionally set out to do. I was working as a tour guide for a historical 19th century freedman’s house museum. The traffic was slow that day and I was chatting with my coworker, Billy Bam. It was a fluke noticing Josie’s photo across the room in a newspaper exhibit. She drew me closer, compelled me with her eyes. She was dressed like a man in the photo with the name “Dr. Josie Wells” inscribed below the image. A black woman, dressed like a man, who was a doctor in 1918? WHAT?? There was no way I was NOT going to find out more about her. It was, at first, just a quick search. Let’s see who this woman was. But her life details one by one began to paint an image of a woman I knew was going to stay with me. I did not, however, realize how completely Josie would affect me. How much her story would resonate in my mind. Josie was a single mother, a college graduate, a doctor, admired, liked and respected by everyone who met her. Her determination and strength of character became more prevalent with every word I read. Josie was who I wanted to be.

I initially thought my interest to know more was because of the blatant similarities between Josie and myself. A woman, in fact, who died when she was exactly my age. We were both single mothers, to daughters, who struggled to get through college, hold down a job all the while attempting to raise another human. Josie’s family was the core of her life, as was mine. However, our lives were also strikingly different. Under the surface, the differences were vast. Josie lived a life of selfless generosity. She gave every minute of her life to improving circumstances for those around her. Josie was a black woman living in the South at the height of Jim Crow. She didn’t see an obstacle she didn’t try to hurdle. She settled for nothing. The harsh realities of her life were so far removed from my own life experiences. I was born with the unwitting privilege of white skin in a time of constant racial strife, but continual racial progress. I hadn’t had to fight for anything in my life. Yet, I wasn’t hurdling anything.  

It seems an odd comparison to make, mine and Josie’s lives, a shallow comparison really. But I could so clearly see it. Josie was a “helper” and I have always been a helper. Helpers are essential. They make life easier for everyone else. They make life better. And sometimes they make life possible. Not in a martyr way, in a necessary and useful way. Helping is addictive, there is joy in knowing you helped someone, whether big or small. What happens is that helpers often put their needs last and lose bits of themselves. In order to make other people happy, helpers sacrifice. Without any resentment, I always helped. Josie helped too. She helped her parents, her siblings, her daughter, her school, her students, her patients, her community. Josie was good, she understood forgiveness and her heart was open. It had to be, the world she lived in demanded she capitulate at every turn. How did she not have hatred in her heart at the many challenges she faced? Her strength, her confidence, her humanity and most of all her obvious joy in life was enthralling.

Josie was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, a short drive from my home. Greenwood Cemetery was one of the first African American Cemeteries in Nashville. In my previous research I had come across many people buried at Greenwood, but never had the opportunity to visit. The cemetery was massive. Finding a grave without help was an impossibility. Upon my first visit, I drove slowly towards the back where the records office was located reading stones as I drove. A stone right by the road decorated with flowers and balloons caught my eye. I don’t know if it was the brightness of the balloons or the love emanating from the many tokens decorating the stone.  I knew the stone couldn’t be Josie’s and yet I stopped, then I noticed names I recognized buried in every direction I looked. Josie’s mentor, George Hubbard, her friends, Nettie Napier and Dr. Boyd. It couldn’t be a coincidence. She had to be in this section, but I didn’t see her. I continued my trek to the office. Upon entering, the man behind the desk looked up from his lunch and the Youtube video he was watching and asked if he could help, although I could tell he didn’t want to. I inquired if they had maps with grave locations. They didn’t. I explained what I was searching for. He shouted to a woman in the next office and she looked Josie’s grave location up. The desk clerk, probably seeing the panic on my face when he gave me oral directions, sighed and said “I’ll take you to her grave.”  I followed him in my car and my heart beat faster as he stopped right by the stone with the balloons. He got out of the car and pointed to the stone directly behind the decorated stone. It was Josie. I had been right BY her stone. It was surreal, I had a moment when I knew deep down inside that Josie was the one who compelled me to stop by those balloons. She knew I was there for her. Her headstone read: “Josie E. Wells” written alongside her birth and death dates. Upon first seeing her stone, only her name and dates were legible. But I could tell there was an inscription along the bottom. I got out my cemetery kit, which I kept in my car for such occasions, and floured her stone. [Cemetery kit=brushes, scissors, shovel, water, flour, sunscreen, wipes and lotion.] The words, “forgetful of self she gave her life for others,” word by word coming into view, a tribute filled with love put there by the people she gave her life to. Josie was appreciated. My heart soared. Lovely words, filled with joy and sorrow. As I read, I felt an overwhelming connection to a woman I would never know. A woman who truly put others above herself, her needs, her wants and desires. She gave her life for others, but who was Josie Wells really? Finding Josie’s story, telling her story became as important as taking my next breath. I needed to find this incredible woman and absorb her strength into my core and share that strength with the world.

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