The moments in our lives when we make the hard decisions, the decisions no one else understands, but we do them still. Those moments, one by one, define the course of our lives. But for parents, they also define the course of their children’s lives. In a world where opportunity was stacked against her, Josie took advantage of EVERY opportunity and defined her own future. As a mother, I know one of her most powerful motivations to become all she could be was her daughter Alma.
When my daughter and I moved to Nashville eight years ago, no one understood why we were doing it. Why I was giving up a secure “good” job to go towards a future so uncertain There was a feeling deep in my gut that screamed “this is the right move…this is the next step.” I had previously taken no chances in my life. My biggest and most amazing adventure was raising my daughter, Kennedy. I don’t know if I was brave for my daughter or because of her, but the move to Nashville changed both of us. It seems a stretch comparing our move to Nashville to Josie and Alma’s but for me, it was a connection to our lives that was so important. I, of course, was only overcoming self imposed barriers in my own life. Josie was knocking down barriers of race and gender within a White paternalistic society. I bet there were people who wondered why she would push further when she was a trained nurse with a “good” job. When I think of how brave she was, my own bravery seems insignificant.
After leaving her position at Dr. Starnes’ nursing training program in San Antonio, TX. Josie and Alma went home to Holly Springs for the summer. They lived in a home next door to her mother Eliza, sister, Cornelia Satterfield and her family. This time was most likely filled with preparation for the fall term of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN. Not only was she moving to another city far away from home and family, she was going to be attending Medical School and working as a nurse to support herself and Alma. Alma was only four years old when they moved to Nashville. Still very young and absolutely in need of a constant care and attention. The empathy I had for Josie and this time in her life was so founded within my own life experience. I finished college when my daughter was eight years old. I worked full time, went to school full time and still managed to be her little league cheer coach (although I didn’t know a single cheer…) But my reality was I had family ready and willing to help me at any given moment. Josie would not have had that. Imagine the anxiety that must have caused. She most assuredly remembered this experience later in her life, because she spent copious amounts of time helping other mothers and their children in simple but impactful ways.
Meharry Medical College was originally a division of Walden University, meant to educate young physicians. However, it grew into its own entity under the leadership of Dr. George W. Hubbard. A great number of the first African American physicians in the South were graduates of Meharry. Once Josie secured her admittance to the school and acquired a job at the new and only Black hospital in Nashville, Mercy Hospital, there must have been fear as well as jubilance in her heart. The timing of her move and the timing of the opening of the hospital were serendipitous.
Mercy Hospital was a large home on South Cherry (Now 4th St. S) that Dr. Robert Fulton Boyd transformed into the first hospital for Blacks in Nashville. To clarify, other hospitals treated Blacks, but did not allow Black physicians to practice medicine. Meharry allowed for the treatment of Blacks by Black doctors and nurses. Mercy had twenty-tree spacious sanitary rooms. There were four primary physicians, besides Dr. Boyd, treating patients: Dr. Ferdinand Stewart, Dr. Henry Noel, Dr. William R.Baker and Dr. H. T. Council. The nurses were lead by Miss Snell with a nursing staff consisting of M. Francis and Josie Wells. The hospital served not only the sick, but also served as a training facility for nurses. Josie was an instructor in “nurses training” as she herself was taking classes to become a doctor.
Dr. C.V. Romans recorded the amazing story of Mercy Hospital’s beginnings in his book Meharry Medical College: a history. Dr. Boyd had to trick the the racist bureaucratic process (which often impeded Black progress) in order to open his hospital. “Many obstacles were overcome, but the energetic and resourceful Boyd was equal to them all. He purchased a large residence at 811 South Cherry Street. Opposition at once developed when the report got out that he was going to establish a hospital. While his opponents sought an injunction he put two of his workmen to bed and called a prominent physician to attend them. At the injunction hearing, he plead RES JUDICATA–the matter is already decided–and produced an influential white physician who testified to attending patients there. The injunction was not only denied but the liberal, tactful and sympathetic words of the judge soothed and satisfied the opposition. The hospital proceeded without further hindrance.”
Josie learned a lot about the ins and outs of running a hospital at Mercy. In the summer of 1903 she traveled throughout hospitals along the East coast to look at their practices, as well as their approach to training nurses. Unlike many of the male doctors, Josie was learning to be a doctor from the perspective of being a nurse. She was definitely open to progressive treatments and instituting new procedures for helping patients.
During her first years in Nashville tragedy struck at a female dormitory, Rust Hall, at Walden University. During the evening of December 19th, 1903, about 11PM, as some students were sleeping the building caught on fire. Many of the frightened girls died not from burns but from the jump out of third and fourth story windows. Rust Hall stood alone and unfortunately had no fire escapes. Josie would have seen it all, she lived on the same street as the dormitory. Other residents on Maple St. said they were initially alerted to the fire by the sound of screams. The Nashville American reported it was “…beyond description…wildest confusion….heart-sickening sights..” but also of the “…heroic labor” of people who rushed to help and those who tended to the wounded. Among those “heroic” laborers was Josie Wells. The news of the fire spread through the neighborhood as fast as the fire spread through the building. Maple St. became quickly overwhelmed with spectators and the ground outside the dormitory was “covered with dead and dying women,” some in their night clothes. That night would have been imprinted on the mind of every resident of Maple St., indelibly. But for people like Josie, the night wouldn’t have ended when the dead and wounded were removed from the street. Most of the wounded and burned girls were taken to Mercy Hospital for treatment. The injuries were horrific, internal injuries and broken bones and burns. The smell of burned skin is something you never forget. The hospital and its doctors and nurses were overtaxed on every level: fuel, money, supplies, time… Dr. Boyd made a very public plea in the Nashville Banner for the benevolence and charity of Nashvillians and Nashville came through and donated everything from money to clothes.
I know it may seem odd that I am not just focusing directly on Josie in my posts, but human experiences make us the people we are. All the events happening around Josie, impacted who she was and the choices she made in her life. In learning who she was, I didn’t just research Josie. I researched the neighborhoods, events, institutions and people that surrounded her. The Yellow Fever epidemic and the Rust Hall fire became a part of Josie’s story. Understanding her world, helps to understand Josie and her journey. It is also very evident of why she grew into such a strong indomitable presence.