Josie’s generation of African Americans was a unique generation who navigated a singular experience within the American narrative. Yet, when learning Black History, we learn about slavery and we learn about civil rights. We do not learn about the individuals that moved us from slavery to civil rights. Josie’s generation, the children of slaves, very simply built a foundation up from nothing. They did it with intelligence, determination and immeasurable amounts of courage. They built communities, buildings and futures for their children. The foundations they built and the advancements they achieved contributed to the success of all future generations. Sadly, their contribution to the American narrative was largely removed. These accomplishments, that fell into unconsciousness, are beautiful to unearth and share.
Josie’s father, Berry English, was a carpenter by trade. As a freedman living in Mississippi with a skill, he was able to make enough money to send his children to school. This education was not limited merely to basic reading and writing, but also a secondary education to learn a vocational skill. Josie attended Rust College and also trained as a nurse.(1) She must have shown impressive skill because as a young woman, not quite twenty-five she was chosen by Dr. Greene Starnes to head a nurses training program in San Antonio, TX. This lead to her eventual move Nashville, as well as her becoming a doctor, a professor and finally an hospital administrator.
Josie’s experience as a nurse gave her a fresh perspective on hospital administration that many of her male colleagues didn’t have. Due to her varied experience, she saw the practice of medicine and the management of a hospital very clearly from various angles. Comprehensive care of patients wasn’t limited to medical treatment. Because of her nursing background, Dr. Josie Wells realized the importance of a well supplied, well funded, well administered hospital. Surgical procedures would not be possible without tools, beds and even linens. Josie’s administrative skill was noticed by Meharry Medical College, where she had become a member of the teaching faculty after her matriculation. In 1909 her talents were further recognized when Dr. R.F. Boyd chose her to become superintendent of his private hospital, Mercy Hospital. Mercy was the only hospital in Nashville staffed with black doctors and nurses and treating Black patients. Mercy also served as a learning hospital for Meharry Medical College students.(2) Dr. Boyd choosing her to run his hospital is more interesting since according to Dr. C.V. Romans, Dr. Boyd and Dr. Wells had a disagreement the year before concerning unfair treatment of medical students at Mercy. Romans indicated that there was a tug of war over participation in surgical clinics. He further stated there was very little variety of doctors chosen to participate in these clinics and it caused dissension. (3) Personal relationships and disagreements become convoluted with time, so maybe we will never know the full measure of “why,” but it is evident from contemporary newspaper sources, there was a resounding consensus that an hospital dedicated to the education of Black doctors was needed. Therefore, an agreement was reached between the Nashville medical community and the Hubbard Hospital Association was born.
Dr. J.E. Wells was elected as secretary of the Hubbard Hospital Association. James C. Napier served as President and Dr. Hubbard himself as treasurer. Building a hospital is and was no minor feat. The Hubbard Hospital Association met regularly. They planned lectures, plays and concerts to make money. It was truly a community effort to get Hubbard Hospital built. Current students and Alumnus alike, people from all over the United States contributed to the hospital fund. Dr. Hubbard and Dr. Josie Wells both traveled across the country raising money. Josie visiting other hospitals and observing management techniques along the way. Initially, $50,000 was needed to complete the center portion of the structure. It was considered a necessity to finish a portion of the hospital for fall students arriving for class in 1910. The wings were added at an estimated $15,000-20,000. The hospital would initially have an operating room, twenty-two rooms for approximately forty patients.
The women in Nashville went one step further. They did what club women did best, they organized and mobilized to support Hubbard. After money was raised and the hospital almost complete Nashville ladies formed The George W. Hubbard Hospital Club. Dr. Josie E. Wells was elected president of the club. Again a series of events were planned in order to raise funds and get physical donations in order to outfit the hospital with necessities: furniture, washers, stoves, linens, etc.. Other clubs contributed as well. Literary and art clubs like the Phyllis Wheatley Club, the Carnation Club and the Forget Me Not held special meetings requesting of their members monetary or physical donations. “Linen showers,” very much reminiscent of bridal showers were quite common throughout the area.
Josie’s pride and joy of the Hubbard Hospital was the new maternity ward. She envisioned a place where Black mothers and infants could receive not only maternity medical care, but health care and health education in general. The goal was to increase the health and mortality of both mothers and children. Her wish was to provide a support system for poor patients, a community support system. She wanted the hospital to provide more than just treatment for sickness. So what did she do? She formed another club called the Negro Women Health Club. (Holy wow, this was why she wore herself out….Just in this post… THREE clubs…AN OFFICER in THREE clubs.) Josie said “The club will try to touch the home life directly and indirectly of many unfortunate ones who no doubt will be inmates of the hospital and under the auspices of the club, with headquarters at Meharry, mothers’ meetings will be held, where topics will be discussed relative to rearing healthy children, the precautions to be used during the summer and the care that should be commenced even before birth.(4)
Josie English Wells and her colleagues and friends did something new. They did something necessary.They did something amazing. They built a hospital from the ground up. They attended a meeting one day and decided “we are going to build a hospital.” It was the first of many firsts accomplished by her generation. These foundations, all the firsts, are a beautiful testament strength and dedication of these individuals who were both the children of slaves and parents and grandparents of civil rights activists. Every story counts.
(1) San Antonion Light, Santonio, TX 23 Sep 1897 pg.7(accessed genealogybank.com)
(2)The Nashville Globe, Nashville, TN 1 Sep 1909 pg.5(accessed newspapers.com)
(3) Romans, C.V., Meharry Medical College: A History (accessed hathidigital.org)
(4)The Tennessean, Nashville, TN 15Aug 1910, pg. 5 (accessed newspapers.com)