I disliked every second of my education. After the first day of Kindergarten my mother picked me up from school and she was so excited. She said “Did you have a good day!?” To which I replied “No, I don’t ever want to go back.” But she didn’t care. She sent me back. (TRUE story.) I was so stubborn. I didn’t learn to read till second grade and honestly I feel it was just the pushing to make me learn that made me not want to. Because once I learned, you couldn’t keep a book out of my hands. I would read books under my blankets at night so my mom couldn’t see the light. I didn’t dislike learning, I disliked education…and being taught! My opinion of school never changed from Kindergarten through college.
When I graduated from college my daughter was eight years old. I would not have finished if I had’t been a mother. But being a mother mattered. I didn’t want to quit and be a quitter in Kennedys eyes. I wanted to be a good example for her and also to be able to create a good foundation for her life. I wanted to provide for her. To be able to afford to travel and introduce her to a world bigger than our little corner of it. I did feel like a college degree would enable me to do that. However, I did not attend the graduation ceremony. There wasn’t a single cell in my body that wanted to walk across a stage in a stadium to get a piece of paper that was torturous to even earn. I had them mail it to me. For me, that worked.
I see Josie as a person who loved being educated. One who appreciated every educational opportunity that came her way. She probably came home from Kindergarten excited and ready to go back. Although she never experienced slavery, she knew her parents were slaves. She knew they couldn’t read or write. Josie wasn’t following a path set by her ancestors in a general sense. However she was definitely drawing from their strength to create her own path. She knew that her education and opportunities would give her daughter more opportunity. She would have had far more of an appreciation for her education than I had for mine. And I do see my privilege in that.
Regardless of my stubborn dislike for being taught, and Josie’s obvious desire to always learn more. Our experiences in one aspect, I feel, were quite similar. Being a mother and a student, working to make sure there was money coming in while attending classes, studying and completing assignments. Every moment with my daughter became more important, as I am sure it was for Josie. Multitasking was a necessity. I remember lying with Kennedy at night reading to her from my text books for her bedtime stories. I’ve imagined Josie doing that with Alma. Of course, I was reading Pride and Prejudice and Emma, I’m certain Josie’s reading material was a little more detailed and scientific! Sometimes the work was too much. Sometimes it felt like it would never end. But, the hard work did pay off for both of us.
On March 1, 1904, Josie English Wells graduated from Meharry Medical College. The first words of a Nashville American newspaper article describing the event gave a crystal clear understanding of how unique her achievement, as a female graduating with a medical degree, was.
“Representative colored citizens of Nashville, their wives, sisters, sons and daughters crowded the Tabernacle…”
Most of the graduates were men. She was one of only three female graduates from the medical department, fifty-nine graduates in all, with another seventeen in the dental and pharmacy departments. On a mild winter evening, with the temperature 52 degrees, 6,000 plus of Middle Tennessee’s Black community made their way to the Union Gospel Tabernacle (renamed The Ryman Auditorium just months later) to see fifty nine medical students accept their medical degrees from Dr. G.W. Hubbard, Dean of Meharry.
W.F. Armstrong, Silver Creek, MS****L.W. Baldwin, Birmingham, AL
W.H. Brummit, Camp Hill, AL****W.A.J. Bullock, Homer, AL
C.L. Cooper, Kingstree, SC****J.R. Duncan, Bowling Green, KY
A.A. Dubose, RIce, TX****B.W. Daniels, Sparta, GA
S.P. Douglas, St. Louis, MO****Peter T. Drizzle, Brookston, TX
Georgia R. Dwelle, Augusta, GA****E.L. Faulkner, New Orleans, LA
S.M. Frazier, Williston, FL****O.C. Garret, New Iberia, LA
R.S. Grant, Nashville, TN****H.T. Geeder, Plain City, OH
S.H. George, Princeton KY****W.H. Horton, Handover, TN
R.A. Henderson, Fulton, MO****J.Boston Hill, Dallas, TX
J.H. Howard, Mars Bluff, SC****J.O. Hickman, Springfield, IL
A.C. Jackson, Gutherie, Ontario****G.W. Lacey, Chicago, IL
R.G. Light, Union City, TN****W.H. Luster, Greenville, MS
G.S.Martin, Nashville, TN****Z.M. Mazique, Pastoria, AR
A.H. McBroom, Nashville, TN****N.D. Merriam, Cape Palmas, Liberia
Hattie D. Mitchell, Nashville, TN****G.H.F. Morris, Robinsville, MS
E.W. Murray, Providence, SC****F.G. McBroom, Nashville, TN
W.H. McCarty, Brownsville,TN****C.N. McDavid, Little ROck, AR
J.A. McMillan, Nashville, TN****G.W. Owens, Savannah, GA
G. Pinkston, Gilbert, MS****N.R. Parker, Mound Bayou, MS
William Poynter, Nashville, TN****B.L. Ruffin, Mason, TN
S.B. Ross, Pine Bluff AR****A.D.C. Robb, Bethany Jamaica
V.J. Simmons, Southampton, Bermuda****George W. Singleton, Barnwell, SC
T.J. Stewart, Napton, MO****William S. Stevens, Tallahassee, FL
P.M. Sunday, New Iberia, LA****J.I. Teague, Kansas City, MO
J.M. Thomas, Winchester, KY****J.C. Waddy, Greensboro, N.C.
E.D. Walker, Columbus, KY****S.H. Warfield, Hopkinsville, KY
JOSIE E. WELLS, HOLLY SPRINGS. MS
J.A. White, Greenville, MS****L.T. Williams, Memphis, TN
J.E. WInston, Desotoville, AL****C.A. Wright, Chester, PA
The ceremony was filled with celebration, song and encouragement. Inspirational speeches were given and futures filled with opportunity were waiting outside the doors of the Tabernacle. Eliza English, born a slave, sat in that audience and watched her daughter walk across the stage and become Dr. Josie E. Wells. The emotions rolling through that woman must have been overwhelming. I cried like a baby watching my daughter walk across the stage to receive her degree. I almost feel a little guilty for not giving my mother the opportunity to sit in the audience and watch me walk across the stage. But she made me go back to Kindergarten and I’m still a little bitter about it;)