I went to a lecture this past week. A local historian exhibited about seventy-five photos of people who have made a difference in our little town and shouldn’t be forgotten. He said something that struck me “‘never stop saying their names, if you say their names they stay in people’s conscious. When you stop saying their names, they disappear.” The truth of that statement slapped me in the face. Josie for example, professionally, was a prominent physician. Socially, she was a force of nature, bettering the world around her. Her name frequented newspapers. Everyone in her community knew who she was when she walked down the street. But people stopped saying her name. So she disappeared from our conscious. Josie was not alone. She was surrounded by a community of intelligent highly motivated professionals, humanitarians and progressive social change warriors. People whose names should never be forgotten. I have so enjoyed meeting all of them, as well as being introduced to their Nashville, which is so different from the Nashville I know. Over the next few posts I’d like to introduce you to Josie’s Nashville and the people who built and walked her streets.
What brought Josie to Nashville was the same thing that brought many others, education. Before Nashville was known as “Music City” she was known “The Athens of the South” primarily because of the vast number of educational institutions filling her borders. This was the case for education in general, but Nashville became a mecca for Black education in the years following the Civil War. This was the result, in great part to the American Missionary Asssociation (AMA). Many ministers and former abolitionists whose goal it became to educate former slaves and give them better opportunities and futures as freedmen flocked to Nashville. Education has always been the key to progress.
1.) Fisk University was originally a freedmen’s school for children opened by missionaries coming south with the AMA, aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Erastus Cravath, a chaplain with the 101st OH Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, was a minister with the AMA and the driving force behind the establishment and growth of Fisk University. The Fisk Jubilee Singers put Fisk University on the map when they traveled the country raising money for the school and introducing the world to slave spirituals. One of the original Jubilee Singers was Georgia Gordon Taylor, a good friend of Josie’s. Graduates of Fisk include Ida B. Wells, John Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois and my friend Sandra Parham!! Fisk University was on the North side of Nashville, the other side of town from Meharry. Josie served as the school physician on call for students and staff.
2.) Roger Williams University was a Baptist founded University. The first location was on Hillsboro Rd, close to Vanderbilt University. The University suffered a devastating fire in January of 1905 and had to close, but they raised enough money to reopen at a Northern Nashville location. Josie would have been familiar with the professors and students at Roger Williams.
3.) What had begun in 1867 as Central Tennessee College, had changed names to Walden University by Josie’s tenure in Nashville. Walden was a Methodist institution with many similarities to Fisk. Walden was also financially aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau and run by an old army Chaplain! The school was built on Maple St. in South Nashville. Josie was physician for Walden as well as for Fisk. The colleges being on opposite sides of town would have meant lots of travel for Dr. Wells!
4.) in 1876 Meharry was created as a department at the Central Tennessee College. Dr. G.W. Hubbard lead the department. Meharry was the first medical college established for Blacks in the South. The department grew and became increasingly self sufficient. However, it was not chartered as its own college until 1915, well into Josie’s tenure!! Not only did Josie graduate from Meharry, she taught dietetics. She was superintendent of the first official school hospital “Hubbard Hospital.” AND she was staff physician for Walden, therefore Meharry. Dr. Josie Wells was a BUSY woman.
These colleges created a backbone for Black Nashville society. It wasn’t just education, it was the creation of the communities surrounding the colleges. Thriving Black neighborhoods grew around Fisk and Meharry. Black owned businesses flourished. Clubs were formed. Charities and events were spearheaded by students, faculty and community leaders. Theater productions and concerts were given by students and attended by the community. Football games between Meharry and Fisk became the event of the season. The Meharry-Fisk game became such an event that places like Franklin, TN had a train car reserved in advance of the game to get spectators the sixteen miles to and from the game. Nashville, the Athens of the South, surrounded her citizens with education and progress creating a renaissance within the Black communities surrounding the schools.
Josie saw all of this. She lived it. She attended those club meetings, plays and games. She was educated in the walls of Walden and Meharry. She educated others. She contributed to the growth and progress powered by education. Josie and the people she knew, the people who said “Good morning Dr. Wells” when she walked up Maple St. to her office at Meharry, they deserve to have their names remembered.