Becoming Josie Wells

Being a genealogist I have come to realize the beautiful symphony that is history. The perfection of every little detail and how all of those details, like notes in a concerto, fit together to form a masterpiece! In this case that masterpiece is the life of Josie English Wells.

In a little bit of unplanned coincidence, today would have been Josie’s wedding anniversary. She married Professor George W. Wells on April 23, 1894 in Holly Springs, MS.

Holly Springs was the center for education of the Freedmen in Mississippi. The Freedmen’s Bureau aided in building forty schools in Marshall County, three of those being in the county seat of Holly Springs and solely for the use of colored students. Shaw University [later renamed Rust] was established as the first college for blacks in Mississippi. Rust served to provide elementary education up through secondary, as well as career training. Josie attended Rust University, and also a Holly Springs Institute for Trained Nurses.

According to an 1895-96 catalog of Straight University, 1879 alumnus Professor George W. Wells taught at Rust University in Holly Springs, MS. The Rust connection is most assuredly how they met, as Josie was only nineteen years old when they married. George was in his late thirties, early forties, a much older man. He was a professor of Latin, so it is easy to romanticize their beginnings and probably it was romantic. A meeting of minds and hearts culminating in marriage and just two years later a daughter, Alma Ninde Wells was born on November 28, 1896.

But the defining moment for Josie wasn’t falling in love with George, marrying him and starting a family. The defining moment came very shortly after Alma was born, when George died. Consider the monumental obstacles this put in her path. She was left a single mother, a black woman, in the Jim Crow South. It was this moment, as filled with grief as it must have been, that defined for Josie how she was going to control her future. It was this moment that pushed her to strive for more for herself, her daughter and for everyone lucky enough to stumble onto her path.

With a flourish of bravery, Josie moved away from her family, her home and everything familiar in order to build upon a foundation she had started before her marriage to George. But she did this alone, with her small daughter. She followed where opportunity led. Josie took a position as superintendent of a nursing program in San Antonio, Texas working with Dr. Green Starnes. An 1897 San Antonio Newspaper stated “Mrs. J.E. Wells, the newly elected matron for the college Infirmary and Deaconess’ Home was tendered a reception at the residence of Dr. Starnes by the Nurses’ Association. In addition to the work of training nurses, Mrs Wells will give the young ladies who have been compelled to leave off their studies at Riverside…, [an opportunity] to continue their studies at the Nurses home and if possible complete the course.” Josie continued to work for Dr. Starnes and train nurses in San Antonio until the graduating class of 1900 completed their studies.

Nashville Globe, September 9, 1919, pg. 5 (accessed newspapers.com)

Dr. Starnes was himself a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN. He was a forward thinking man and based the core of his medical studies on the study of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis was rampant in the black community. Dr. Starnes established a tent community for tuberculosis sufferers in San Antonio and threw his heart and a good deal of his resources into the treatment and care of patients. He must surely have been an inspiration for Josie, both professionally and personally. The four years in San Antonio were an important part of Josie’s growth as a medical professional and as a woman. As a young widow, she had her plate full. She was learning how to be a mother, a teacher and a nurse. The empathy she gained for the daily plight of women during her tenure as a nurse and new mother in San Antonio stayed with her. Dr. Starnes and his passion for his patients inspired Josie. It was most likely this man, either literally or by the example he set, that encouraged Josie to become a doctor.

Sometimes when you look at the basic facts of a persons existence: birth certificates, marriage certificates, census records….etc, the human element gets lost. Most people would look at Josie’s life and say she became Josie Wells on April 23, 1894. For me, I look at the the experiences she had, the obstacles she faced and how those impacted who she was to become and I clearly see she became Josie Wells the day her husband died.

One thought on “Becoming Josie Wells

  1. This was fantastic, being able to learn more about my great grandmother and namesake has been very special. I can now place some history to the family photos I have.

    David Wells Givens

    Liked by 1 person

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