Josephine English was born in 1876 in Holly Springs, MS on the cusp of a yellow fever epidemic that swept through her town. Her parents, Berry and Eliza English, were former slaves. Her father found success as a carpenter and was able to afford opportunities for his family that were not available to most freedmen. Berry and Eliza bought land and sent their children to college. Young Josie became a nurse and married a Latin professor, George Wells, from nearby Rust College. The future seemed full of potential for these two professionals.
Unfortunately, their marriage was short-lived. Soon after Josie gave birth to their daughter, Alma, George passed away. Josie was a black, single mother in the South with many obstacles in her path. Opportunities were few in Mississippi, so she courageously followed opportunity to San Antonio, TX to head a nursing education program at Dr. Starnes’ hospital. Dr. Starnes was a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN and most assuredly encouraged the talented young nurse to pursue a medical degree herself. Josie English Wells entered Meharry in the fall of 1900. She supported Alma and herself by working as a nurse while attending classes.
Upon graduation in 1904, Dr. J. E. Wells opened her own practice. She specialized in medicine for women and children and operated a free weekly clinic where she treated only them. She lectured to women’s groups on allopathy, nutrition and childcare, not only in Nashville, but in cities across the country from Boston to Atlanta. She was an advocate for women, working closely with leading black women’s suffrage leaders like Dr. Mattie Coleman and Nettie Napier. In addition to this, she worked tirelessly lecturing and raising money for Hubbard Hospital – Meharry’s first education hospital. When the money was raised, she led a movement to fill the hospital with everything needed to care for the needs of its patients. Dr. Wells became the first person to serve as Superintendent of Hubbard Hospital. Not the first woman. Not the first black person. The first person. In a Jim Crow segregated society, she hurdled every obstacle thrown in her path. She did this while raising her daughter, two nephews, and two nieces. Dr. Josie Wells died one hundred years ago today, on March 20, 1921. Her short life was full of courage, strength, faith, and joy.
8 Nashville Banner, Nashville, TN, Saturday, 13 Aug 1910, pg. 12 (accessed newspapers.com)
7 The Nashville Globe, Nashville, TN, Friday, 7 Jun 1918, pg. 4 (accessed newspapers.com)
6 The Nashville Globe, Nashville, TN, Friday, 22 Mar 1907, pg. 1 (accessed newspapers.com)
5 The New York Age, New York City, NY, Thursday, 12 Sep 1907, pg. 7 (accessed newspapers.com)
4 The Nashville Globe, Nashville, TN, Friday, 17 Sep 1909, pg. 5 (accessed newspapers.com)
3 The Nashville Globe, Nashville, TN, Friday, 22 Mar 1907, pg. 2 (accessed newspapers.com)
2 The Meharry News, v. 7, #2, Apr, May, June 1921, pg. 11-17
1 Wells, Josephine, 4 yrs old, West Holly Springs, Marshall, MS, pg. 2, line 11, U. S. Federal Population
Census, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication Series T9). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record
Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D. C. (accessed ancestry.com)