I think we can all agree, some years are better than others. 2020 lacked…in almost every way. The only thing 2020 had going for it was Netflix and Disney Plus. I watched Moana (yes….Moana) probably 550 times without any child present. Moana saved the world from destruction assisted by an ocean, a chicken and the Rock. 1918 was Josie’s 2020. Quite simply put Josie’s world was in chaos. WWI was in full swing. Racial Lynchings and protests were front and center in Nashville. Women were ramping up their organizational skills and vigorously campaigning for the right to vote. AND the Spanish Flu was kicking butt. Josie’s life was greatly impacted on a personal and professional level: a human level. Josie was doing her best to save the world without a chicken or the Rock.
It is appropriate that the year began with Josie and the rest of the Hubbard Hospital Club’s annual sermon, given by Bishop Isaiah Scott at the Meharry Auditorium. His sermon entitled “Help for Others” espoused the importance of each individual using their God given talents to help those around them. It was, unknowingly, a prophetic sermon for the coming year.
If it was battle, 1918 would have been en echelon; perfect formation, one hit after another exhibiting maximum damage. In February there was a brutal lynching in Estill Springs, TN. Jim Mcllherron, after a life of dehumanization, torture and cruelty, broke. Jim opened fire on three White tormentors throwing rocks at him, killing two and injuring the other. He escaped and was allegedly aided by a local minister Rev. Lych. Masked mobs of evil first killed the minister and then tracked Jim down and burned and tortured him at the stake with what seemed like the entire town rooting them on. An emotional tidal wave of abject horror spread through not only Black communities but White communities as well. The Black community of Nashville was motivated to stand up for justice. Lead by J.C.Napier and Preston Taylor a peaceful group of hundreds of Black men marched from the YMCA to the Capitol Building where J.C. Napier addressed the Governor on the necessity of meting out justice for the brutality of the lynching. Napier didn’t defend Jim, he simply asked for fairness and justice. Josie couldn’t participate in the march, as she was a woman. But the marchers walked right past Josie’s office. The event would have touched her life, her friends and her community. The reminder that hate and violence is real, its here and its dangerous.
Hatred and violence wasn’t just in Nashville, it was enveloping the world in the first World War. Although the U.S. entered WWI in April of the previous year, it wasn’t until March of 1918 that Josie’s nephew Benjamin Walker Satterfield, who lived with her, left for Europe. He was a Corporal in Co. K, 372nd Regiment, U.S. Army. Ben’s next of kin in his military records was listed as his aunt “Dr. Josie E. Wells.” The terror that absolutely lived in her heart, knowing a boy she helped raise, after her sister Cornelia died, was going off to war. My heart hurts for her just thinking about it. The disheartening reality was Benjamin was fighting for a country that wouldn’t even take a stand to recognize that Black citizens, especially Black men, were often not afforded more than the most basic privileges of freedom.
Another soldier in Ben’s same company and regiment wrote a letter home to Nashville which was published in the newspaper. Pvt. Harry Harrison wrote “I have arrived across the sea safe and sound and ‘believe me’ it was some trip on the war ship (Susquehanna) and I believe God went across with us. We obeyed all orders that were given to us from our Capt., who left Nashville with us. He is good to us. Capt. C.O. Hadley is a good man to us. He takes good pains with us. They all say ‘Somewhere in France’ and ‘Believe me’ it is somewhere too and a great long ways from home…”–April 14, 1918 Benjamin’s regiment the 372’d regiment was attached to a French Army Corp. and actively served on the front near Verdun. They were commended by the French Military for “brilliant conduct in the Champagne offensive.” (Norwich Bulletin, CT 31 Jan 1919, pg. 5) The regiment was known for not backing down.
Josie busied herself helping with the war effort at home participating in the Negro division of the Woman’s Council of Defense with noteworthy women like Mattie Coleman, Nettie Napier, Mattie Scott and Minnie Crosthwait,. The council’s objective was to assist the government with the war on the home front.They discussed ways women could contribute by conserving food, offering their labor and raising money for the war effort. Josie and many other Black citizens rallied to sell war bonds. They met and formed into district committees. Josie, a chairman of her district, was in the fifteenth ward, Frankie Juno Pierce, suffrage leader, was on the committee for the twelfth ward, Mattie Coleman, suffrage leader, was on the committee for the tenth ward. Mattie Coleman specifically wished to focus on raising money and selling bonds within the successful club societies Black women had created. Working with these woman put Josie on the front and center as a leader within her community. All of these women were role models. They did not limit their resources to simply raising money for war bonds. They raised money for home relief and welfare programs and they lit a fire within the Black female community for the right to have a recognized voice and a recognized right to contribute to policy making.
In the summer of 1918 the newspaper mentioned that Josie was taking a “much needed vacation” and visiting her daughter in Norfolk, VA. Josie was sick. This is probably the beginning of the symptoms of her thyroid disorder. Her symptoms becoming more exacerbated because she was physically and mentally exhausted and running herself ragged. Returning revitalized from vacation, she threw herself back into her routine. But by September her doctor warned her to not spread herself too thin. She was advised to resign from some of her committee obligations and focus instead on fewer responsibilities, although important responsibilities. This focus came at a time when Nashville was experiencing overwhelming loss during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic.
Reading the 1918 newspapers for the Spanish Flu, a reader could very easily replace “Spanish Flu” with “Covid.” The flu filled the public with fear and uncertainty. Events were canceled. Businesses, churches and schools were closed. The fear and uncertainty didn’t negate the importance of football, however. They still held their football games, but no school and no church! The inconsistency eerily familiar to 2020.
The Tennessean reported “Hubbard Hospital has been filled to its upmost capacity during the recent epidemic. Upon hearing of the congestion at the City Hospital. Hubbard opened the door and accommodated as many as possible. Dr. J.E. Wells, the superintendent of the institution, together with the nurses and doctors, gave needed attention to the sufferers, the majority of whom were sent back to their homes in fine condition.” (The Tennessean, Nashville, TN, 3 Nov 1918, pg. 26) Loss hit close to home for Josie though. Carrie Napier, daughter of J.C. and Nettie Napier and an active young woman on Josie’s nurses drive committee, died on Oct 10, 1918 attended to by Dr. J.E. Wells.
When I research people, I make timelines of their lives. I include their personal information as well as items happening both locally and nationally that would have impacted who they were and what they experienced. I do not research in chronological order, I am haphazard all over the place kind of human. The timelines bring my haphazard into order. When I was compiling Josie’s timeline, 1918….just went on forever and ever with one bad entry after another. The details vivid and somber. However, her year ended on a more gentle note. Spanish Flu cases declined. Josie organized and was master of ceremonies for a huge concert benefit for Hubbard Hospital and Alma came home for Christmas. A year that entered rather gently and then exploded…eased out with tinkling music, laughter and celebration. (No Rock though.)