Holly Springs, MS is known for many things. Before the Civil War, it was a wealthy cotton rich city. It became a business center for the cotton industry, the railroads giving easy access to markets north, south, east and west. This easy access to other cities also made it a pivotal location during the Civil War. Holly Springs changed hands from the Confederate Army to the U.S. Army and then back to the Confederate Army. While occupied by the U.S., General Grant was using Holly Springs as his headquarters and a supply depot for his army. Confederate General Earl Van Dorn conducted a successful raid into Holly Springs to destroy the U.S. Army’s supplies. This helped perpetuate the eventual retreat of Grant’s forces into Tennessee. Hillcrest Cemetery, bordering downtown, is the final resting place for Confederate Generals Featherston, Walthall and Govan. Although they are dead and buried, the Confederate myth they left behind lives strong. After the war, in 1878, Holly Springs was the oh so reluctant host to a Yellow Fever Epidemic, which killed 304 people. Not so famously, Holly Springs became home to one of the oldest Black colleges in South, Rust College (c.1866) and the birthplace of two amazing women: anti-lynching advocate and womans’ suffrage leader Ida B. Wells and social advocate and suffrage leader Dr. Josephine English Wells. Holly Springs was full of Wells!
Initially when I started researching Josie and realized that Ida B. Wells was also from Holly Springs, my heart raced. Not simply from the same city, Ida had a brother named George and Josie had a husband named George…At this point, I almost hyperventilated. It was one of those moments when I was convinced before I had any proof what-so-ever that Ida B. Wells was Josie’s sister-in-law. I danced around and cheered and patted myself on the back for finding such an amazing connection. Unfortunately she wasn’t. There was no connection. Except they were both born in Holly Springs, MS, they were both Black and their fathers were carpenters. I often have to remind myself, or be reminded to “SLOW DOWN!” But I did learn more about Ida B. Wells and her parents than I had known before. I very much enjoyed soaking in Ida B’s story. But if George W. Wells wasn’t Ida B.’s brother, who was he?
When I started this post my plan was to tell you that sometimes you search and put your heart and soul into the search and you find nothing. Six years of researching Josie, and George was still largely a mystery. Every search had a dead end. I had all these positive words for you about accepting that information may not exist to be found and it’s OK, be happy with what you HAVE found…blah blah blah. Then sitting down and organizing what I knew about George, flipping through the pages, I noticed one little detail I hadn’t noticed before. A few days later after falling down an Alice sized rabbit hole, I suddenly had a re-energized perspective on research and the life of a man materializing out of nowhere. So my words of positivity for this post have changed. Sometimes you think you have found everything, or that there is nothing to find. Don’t give up. Set it aside. Come back later. Look again with fresh eyes. BUT always come back!
Let’s begin this George journey with the meager facts we initially knew when my research began. Josephine English married George Wells in Holly Springs on April 23, 1894, which was reflected in the court records of Marshall County, MS. Josie’s 1921 obituary stated that “she was married to Prof. Wells of Holly Springs, but he died shortly thereafter.” And finally, a biographical sketch written on Alma Wells Givens by the Journal of the National Medical Association said “Her father was a professor of Latin and Greek at Rust and Straight Colleges.” The 1895-96 Straight University Catalog listed George W. Wells as an 1879 graduate, who was a professor at Rust College in Holly Springs, MS. On a personal level, we could assume that if George was graduating in 1879 from college he was born at least 20 years before that, so about 1859. Census records for Alma through the years listed her father’s birth location as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama! I consistently looked for a George Wells born in any of those areas, focusing on Louisiana since that is where Straight University was. That WAS all we knew…until I was thumbing through George’s information in my binder, I noticed a little detail that I had overlooked. A simple detail. A librarian at the Straight University had sent me a list of graduates and where they were from. George Wells was listed in 1879….from New Orleans!
I did a quick search for George Wells in New Orleans in 1880.
Living at 188 Race St. was a twenty three year old “G.W. Wells” and his mother, M.A. Hall. Race for both was “Mu,” meaning they were both biracial. G.W. was enumerated as being born in Kentucky! (NOT Louisiana, or Mississippi or Alabama!) Kentucky was given as birth location to the census enumerator by either George or his mother, who both knew where he was born. It is as close as we are going to get to a first hand account of his birth location. To help confirm “G.W.” was George, I searched the 1878 New Orleans city directory and listed was “Wells, George W. student. r.188 Race.”
I was deep in the rabbit hole by this time. One small detail snowballed into an avalanche of information: one document to another to a newspaper article until finally the timeline of a mans’ life was staring me in the face.
So my friends, Let me introduce you to Josie’s husband, Rev. George W. Wells!
George W. Wells was born abt. 1857 to M.A. Hall. George’s mother was born in Louisiana and his father was born in Kentucky. By 1878, George was living with his mother at 188 Race St. in New Orleans and attending Straight University, where he graduated in 1879. By 1885 he was an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was managing a school house for children in Iberville Parish. In 1886 George lectured on the importance of national aid to public education. He was said to be “an eloquent and impressive speaker.” I love details like that, especially as it forms little bits of personality for this man that Josie fell in love with. He was passionate about education. That is absolutely a quality she would have fallen in love with.
In 1892, George was a delegate representing the Alexandria Conference of Methodist ministers in New Orleans. He was said to be a professor at Wiley University in Marshall, TX. Wiley University records show that by 1888 George was a professor of Ancient Languages and Natural Science. I discovered AN amazing connection at Wiley. Rev. I.B. Scott was president of the University. I.B. Scott’ s wife, Mattie Evans Scott, was one of Josie’s best friends in Nashville! Crazy, the connections. George taught at Wiley until 1893 when he moved to Mississippi to teach Latin and Greek at Rust College. There he met Josie, fell in love, got married AND then he died. He married Josie and then he up and died on her. There is a part of me that is a little annoyed with him. She was twenty years younger than him, just graduated and either a new mother or pregnant and he up and died on her. There are so many questions. Did he die before Alma was born or after? When exactly? What did he die from? Where is he buried? Did he have siblings? Was his mother still alive? And for goodness sake what was his middle name?? So much is still unknown, but I know I’ll find it. This journey I find myself on every day, building lives for people long gone. It’s a roller coaster of frustration and joy. AND I love it. As to George, I’m going to set him aside for now, but I’ll come back.