Not Self Made, Community Made: The Life of Madam C.J. Walker’s Doctor Part I

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If we don’t tell our stories, they will go to the grave with us. My mother, now in her eighties is the last one to remember the stories her elders told and the moments that shaped her life, good or bad. I feel a tremendous responsibility to tell these stories, so that I will never forget and so that my children will know who they come from and how we got over. Bear with me as I tell our story.

I loved my grandmother to the core. We called her ‘Mur’, a name my older brother David gave her as a toddler when he couldn’t annunciate grandmother. Mur was my everything. Her love for etiquette and manners was a daily lesson in kindness and a mirror to a past she lost. From her rocking chair, she shared with me her memories of a life she lived with her beloved parents and younger brother. Some of her stories were filled with humor and nostalgia. Some were heartbreaking and kept me up at night. As her granddaughter, I did my best to ease her pain and to put a smile on her face. Mur was an incredible woman, an actress, pianist, teacher, former student of Spelman College (HBCU) when it was a boarding school for girls and a theatre graduate of University of Denver.

(Mur’s wedding day with my grandfather Erskine Goode Roberts, former engineering professor at Tuskegee Institute, Lincoln University, Howard and MIT. Joseph and Zella Ward standing by her side at Tuskegee Institute. Mur looks so beautiful! Such a lady!)

Mary Roena Ward was born in 1910 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mary was the daughter of Dr. Joseph Henry Ward, the first ‘colored’ surgeon to own and operate a ‘colored only’ hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mur’s mother, Zella Locklear Ward was an activist, socialite, wife and Dr. Ward’s nurse in the Ward Sanitarium at 722 Indiana Avenue. Joseph was born in Wilson, North Carolina in 1872. Born free to his formerly enslaved mother Mittie Roena Ward. 

(My grandmother, Mary Roena Ward, ‘Mur’)

Mittie was born in 1849 with her twin Apsilla Ward in Greene County, North Carolina to Sarah Ward, an enslaved woman and a white doctor, Dr. David G.W. Ward. After Dr. Ward’s wife died and left him to father their children, Sarah was raped. Dr. Ward was the most prominent landowner and doctor in that region. The house where Sarah was raped and Mittie and Apsilla were born is still standing. 7604 Sand Pit Road, Stantonsburg, North Carolina. In 2019, I visited the house with my mother. We stood in silence and gathered the dirt from the land that Sarah, Mittie and Apsilla once stood on. 

(Mittie Roena Ward’s Twin Sister Apsilla and Napoleon Hagans wife)
(Ward Plantation where Sarah, Mittie and Apsilla Ward were enslaved.My mother wouldn’t let me knock on the door to introduce myself. Believe me I wanted to feel the house to see where Sarah, Mittie and Apsilla once lived.)


After slavery ended, Apsilla married Napoleon Hagans, a successful black cotton farmer and ruthless landlord that owned 485 acres right down the road from Dr. Ward’s plantation at 702 Napoleon Road. (The road would be named after Napoleon Hagans years later.) Napoleon was a scoundrel. Hagans rented his land to both black and white farmers but he was known for beating his black tenants for unpaid rent. When I imagine him, he reminds me of ‘Mister’ in the Color Purple. An opportunist, slumlord and womanizer. But to be fair, to be a black land owner with 485 acres in the Deep South in the 19th century took some serious survival skills. Although Napoleon was illiterate, he was welcomed into Wayne County’s black elite and was well known by both black and white circles. In 1880, Hagans testified to the United States Senate Committee about his treatment as a black landowner a few years after Reconstruction. 

During the period between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Though lynching touched all races and religions, the practice was predominant in the South, and four out of five victims were African American. In 1892, the Tuskegee Institute began to record statistics of lynchings and reported that 4,742 reported incidents had taken place by 1968, of which 3,445 of the victims were African Americans.

Hagans testified to a United States Senate Committee that he was a free man before the Civil War ended and the owner of 485 acres of land worth $6,000. Today, $6,000 is equivalent to $152,000. When asked by the Senate Committee how he acquired that amount of land Hagans said, “I worked for it.” My cousin Lisa Henderson, a lawyer in Atlanta has done extensive research on our family in North Carolina. Lisa gave her opinion about Hagans Senate Committee testimony:

This, of course, was Napoleon Hagans (not Higgins)’ testimony before a Senate Select Committee investigating the migration of hundreds of African-Americans from the South to Kansas and Indiana in the late 1870s, allegedly because of “denial or abridgment of their personal and political rights and privileges.”  Hagans’ testimony about the source of his relative wealth, as well his opinions about the political and judicial climate for colored men in his part of North Carolina, were well-received by the committee, which concluded that all was well in Dixie. Nonetheless, it is perhaps possible — if one suppresses natural feeling and attempts to stand in Napoleon’s shoes — to detect a very subtle undercurrent of resistance here and there in the essential conservatism of his words.

(Napoleon and Apsilla Ward Hagans Home. To stand here and see where great grandfather Joseph’s father Napoleon and Aunt Apsilla lived was mind blowing. Our family hasn’t returned to North Carolina in a century!)

When my mother and I visited the Ward Plantation and the Hagans home, we visited their grave marker. Napoleon and Apsilla died a year apart in 1895 and 1896. The marker is still standing in a cornfield about two hundred feet from their home. Napoleon and his wife Apsilla had two sons, Henry and William Hagans. Both graduated from historically black colleges and universities, Howard and Shaw University, an achievement in itself considering their father was illiterate and their mother was once enslaved. 

But the plot thickens! Napoleon had a love child with Apsilla’s twin Mittie, my great grandfather Joseph Henry Ward. That’s right, Napoleon slept with his wife’s twin! Scandalous is understatement. The story of Joseph Henry Ward, similar to Joseph in the Bible was not paved in gold. Although his half-brothers Henry and William lived a better life, Joseph and his mother Mittie were illiterate and left to fend for themselves. Joseph left North Carolina as a teenager, penniless and fatherless. The irony that Joseph eventually moved to Indiana and his father Napoleon was previously asked by the Senate Committee if he heard any speeches that were ‘stirring up men’ to move to Indiana. A flood of black and native North Carolinians moved to Indiana, hoping to find prosperity, peace and a fresh start in a booming Indianapolis. 

This is the part of the story that I remember when my grandmother Mur’s face lit up as she told the greatest come up story in our family. I would sit on Mur’s lap and she would talk about Pom Pom, the name my mother affectionately called her grandfather. Joseph by now has moved to Indianapolis and is living and working as a stable boy for a German doctor named Dr. George Hasty, a founding member of the Physio-Medical College in Indiana and editor of the Physio-Medical Journal.  Leon Bates, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Wayne University in Detroit said in his article for the American Legion about my great grandfather:

Hasty saw to it that Ward completed his education – eighth grade, followed by three years at Indianapolis High School (later Shortridge High School, class of 1894) and the Physio-Medical College of Indiana in 1897. Ward did additional training at the Indiana Medical College in 1900. In 1902, he attended advanced training in modern surgical techniques at Polhemus Memorial Clinic in New York, which pioneered the use of inhalation anesthetics.  

Ward wanted to be not only a doctor, but a surgeon – goals made practically impossible by 19th-century social norms and segregation policies of the Indianapolis City Hospital. In 1901, he opened a small office at 435½ Indiana Ave., where he was one of eight African American doctors in Indianapolis – a city with a black population of 169,000. Undaunted, he went on to open Ward’s Sanitarium, a privately owned hospital and surgery center located on the second floor of a large house at 722 Indiana Ave., offering medical services to anyone.   

In 1908, Ward was elected president of the Aesculapian Medical Society, the Indianapolis chapter of the National Medical Association. He also served as vice president of the National Hospital Association, a group for black-owned hospitals (a counterpart to the American Hospital Association). By 1922, African Americans in Indiana needing surgery were coming from as far as 100 miles away. 

Let me reintroduce myself, my name is Dr. Joseph Henry Ward! Every time I heard this story from my grandmother and my mother, I imagined Joseph watching his half-brothers receive all of the love and education they desired, as he struggled to read a written word. I imagined him cleaning stables, walking from his mother’s humble home in Wilson, North Carolina to Lagrange, North Carolina with 30 cents in his pocket. Seventeen year old Joseph waiting tables in Lagrange to save for his move to Indianapolis and the moment Dr. Hasty realized as he said in the July 22, 1899 Indianapolis Freeman, “There is something unusual in that green looking country boy.” Joseph was a humble and poised man, quite the opposite of his father Napoleon. I wonder how Napoleon felt when he heard that his out of wedlock son with his wife’s twin sister was becoming a huge success in Indianapolis. Did he smile in private? Did he congratulate him when Joseph returned home to visit his mother before he went off to medical school? or did he do and say nothing? Did Auntie Apsilla say anything to her sister Mittie?

By the time Joseph graduated from medical school he was married to his first wife. A marriage that ended early and then he met her, Zella Locklear, my namesake and his soulmate. They married in November of 1904 at her parents home in what a local newspaper called ‘the most elaborate affair that has happened in colored circles in years.” This image from an Indianapolis newspaper details how this ‘country boy’ now foremost ‘negro’ surgeon in the United States and his young wife became the Wards of Black Indianapolis, the mecca of black entrepreneurship in the Midwest.  

Not much is written about Zella as much as her illustrious husband Joseph but from Mur’s mouth and my mother’s I know who she was. Zella is me. After many miscarriages, I was born. My father gave me her name after hearing my grandmother and mother’s stories about Zella. Daddy said I was a fighter like her, so I feel compelled to lift up Zella’s story. 

Zella Locklear was born in December of 1882, a descendant of the Lumbee Native American tribe of North Carolina. Zella’s grandparents Arthur and Malissa Locklear were farmers. They moved from Lumbee native land to Indianapolis with their seven children Sarah, Andrew, John, Robert, Joseph, Arthur and Elizabeth. Arthur and Malissa’s son Arthur Jr. was a dyer by trade. Arthur Jr. married a black woman named Mary Lartor and had two daughters, Zella and Mamie and a son named Roy. Two of Arthur’s brothers served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Zella was a socialite and a well known activist in Black Indianapolis, polar opposite from her sister Mamie who was more of a homebody. Zella was a founding member of the Indianapolis Colored Women’s Improvement Club, co-founder of a women’s club to help treat black men suffering from tuberculosis and the Board President of the Phillis Wheatley YWCA. An avid poker and bridge player. Impeccably dressed in the finest garments and she was brilliant. 

(W.E.B. Du Bois letter to the Wards on their 25th anniversary in 1929. Note Du Bois joking with my great grandfather about marriage.)

In A’leila Bundles book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker talked about the ‘warm’ and ‘cordial’ reception received by Dr. Joseph Ward and Zella Ward. The Indianapolis Recorder announced, “Mme. C.J. Walker of Pittsburgh, Pa., THE NOTED HAIR CULTURIST, is in the city at the residence of Dr. J.H. Ward at 722 Indiana Avenue, where she will demonstrate the art of growing hair.” Bundles proposes in her book on pg. 102 that Dr. Joseph Ward probably met Madam Walker through the organization they both belonged to, the Knights of Pythias but that isn’t how they met. According to my grandmother and mother, Walker’s lawyer Freeman Briley Ransom introduced them. After all, the Ransoms lived on the same block. They all lived on California Avenue. It was a community of black folks that believed in uplifting the race. They left the South for that very reason. 

(Madame C.J. Walker lived in my great grandparents, the Wards boarding home and sanitarium on 722 Indiana Ave. Indianapolis, Indiana. Walker operated her first salon from their home until she could open her own salon. Walker was community made! Look at all those prominent black folks that ‘respectfully signed’ for her! A testimony to black folks helping uplift the race.)


More information about California Avenue and who lived in this bustling black community!

Here is a photo of me visiting the Wards home on the same block that the Ransoms lived. It is for sale! I peaked in and imagined them starting the fireplace and sitting in the front room with Mur as a child.

(Me visiting the home where my great grandparents the Wards and my grandmother Mur lived on California Avenue. Same block as the Ransoms and other prominent black folks in 19th century Indianapolis.)


Although great grandfather Joseph ran the Ward Sanitarium, Zella ran their boarding house. Mur and my mother had so many funny stories about all of the boarders Zella took in that I will share in another blog post. Madam Walker was one of the boarders in the Ward home. My mother told me, “Walker knew how to advertise herself and Zella knew how to promote her. Zella took Walker to every black church and ladies function in the region. Walker was a huge activist, she raised money for the Indianapolis Senate YMCA. Walker’s relationship with the Wards and her love for uplifting her race inspired her to match funds with Julius Rosenwald, co-owner of Sears & Roebuck Co. Rosenwald put the word out that he would match money if the black community would raise the rest. Walker matched Rosenwald in a big way. We are talking about 1921 when most black folks were maids and servers. They raised the money. No one was self made, everyone was community made.”

Mur once told me that Dr. Ward adored Madam Walker as a patient and newfound friend but wasn’t’ too thrilled about her setting up a hair salon in their home. The idea of hair and women everywhere was too much for the stringent doctor. Zella paid him no mind and had Madam Walker set up the salon in their front parlor. She was fascinated by Madam Walker and loved all of Madam Walker’s products. Zella couldn’t wait to introduce her to the women she knew in Black Indy. (In part II, I will talk more about the Wards and Madam C.J. Walker and what my grandmother told me.)

(Dr. Joseph Henry Ward is at the top right of the image with the white hat. Madam C.J. Walker is standing next to Booker T. Washington (Founder of Tuskegee Institute) Mme. Walker’s lawyer, Freeman Ransom is also in the photo. Ransom lived a few doors down from the Wards home. This picture was taken in front of the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis.)


Joseph and Zella had two children, a daughter Mary Roena and Joseph “Buddy” H. Ward Jr. They were a year apart. Mur loved her brother Buddy so much. Mur taught me all of the games and songs her and her brother would play when they were little from hopscotch to marbles. Mur’s eyes always teared up when she spoke about her brother. One day, I asked her what happened to Buddy. A day, I will never forget. It was raining outside and Mur was in her room in her rocking chair. She looked up to the heavens as she did often and began to tell me the most heartbreaking story. A timely story since many of us are at home right now dealing with COVID-19. To give some context before I share what happened to Buddy, Leon Bates detailed Dr. Joseph Ward’s decision to be one of the many black men to join the armed forces in Europe to fight during World War I:

On April 6, 1917, at the request of President Wilson, Congress declared war against Germany. Not long after, the U.S. government called on African Americans to join the cause, on the heels of Wilson’s public praise of D.W. Griffith’s racist film “Birth of a Nation,” which had played to sellout crowds. Some 350,000 blacks served, 10,000 of whom never returned home; most are buried in U.S. military cemeteries in France. 

Ward joined the Army, intending to serve as a doctor. He was already a respected surgeon, proprietor of a successful private hospital, with a wife and two children. At 45, and with no military experience, Ward was under no obligation to serve, yet in an interview with the Washington Bee he said that something important was happening in the world and he wanted to be a part of it.

At the Medical Officers Training Camp (Colored) at Fort Des Moines, Iowa (a one-time experiment the Army never repeated), Ward’s skills as a physician and administrator got the training staff’s attention, and he was recommended for promotion. 

As one of the 104 black doctors and dentists who served in the Army during World War I, Ward was assigned to the 325th Signal Battalion, 92nd Infantry Division. On June 10, 1918, 1st Lt. Joseph H. Ward, M.D., along with members of a medical detachment of the 325th Field Signal Battalion and 3,000 men of the 92nd, departed for Europe at Hoboken, N.J., aboard USS Orizaba, a U.S.-flagged ocean liner requisitioned by the Army.  

Being a medical officer in a combat zone can, at times, be as hazardous as serving as an infantryman, as Ward and other members of MOTC (Colored) learned with the death of 1st Lt. Urbane Bass of Virginia. Bass was among the group of black doctors and dentists commissioned at Camp Des Moines, and was assigned to the 372nd Infantry Regiment, 93rd Infantry Division…

By war’s end, Ward had been promoted to major and was in command of a U.S. Army field hospital in Europe. At the time, he was the first of two African Americans in Army history to achieve that level of authority and responsibility. 

(Lt. Colonel Joseph H. Ward, stationed in France, World War I, 1917)

Mur looked me in the eyes and began to tell me what happened to Buddy. I remember it like yesterday.

 “I remember when Daddy was in the kitchen with my mother and he told her that he was going to France to join other colored men. Mother wasn’t pleased with the idea since she had two young children and she would have to take in boarders to help with living costs but she packed his suitcase and he was off to war. Back then, there were no telephones, just telegrams. We would wait for his telegram and go with mother to send him one. Then 1918 came and we all got sick. Mother, Buddy and I were stricken to our bed. All of us in one bed trying to comfort each other from the Spanish Influenza. Many of us were sick. The whole world was sick with the influenza. We had to put a purple cloth over our door so that city officials and our neighbors knew not to enter the house because we were all sick. Buddy was nine years old. He pointed up to the heavens and told us he was leaving. He died right next to us in mother’s bed. They carried his body out of the house. We couldn’t follow the body, we were still sick. I lost my best friend, my only brother. My mother lost her firstborn child. I know that when Daddy received the telegram in France he was devastated that his only son died, he had to be hospitalized and relieved of his duties for awhile. He was never the same. When he recuperated, the American Army learned about his extraordinary skills as a surgeon that led him to run the base hospital. When he came back home, we exhumed his body so that he could see Buddy one last time.” The way Mur told her story made me see her as more than my grandmother, she was my shero. I wiped her tears and sat on her lap and held her as tight as I could.

(Great Grandfather Joseph H. Ward saving lives in WWI. He enlisted at 45 years old. Like so many black men during that time, it meant everything to show the world what they too were men.)


Ward returned to the United States aboard SS La France, arriving in New York City on Feb. 9, 1919. He went by train 60 miles east to Camp Upton, where he was held over to help care for returning veterans still recovering from illness and battlefield injuries. 

While there, Ward received word that his most famous patient and America’s first female millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker, had fallen critically ill while visiting St. Louis. Ward and his wife were close friends with Walker; the couple helped launch the Walker Manufacturing Co. in 1911.  

The Army granted Ward emergency leave, and he arrived in Irvington, N.Y., to meet Walker’s train and accompany her home. Just after 7 a.m. May 25, 1919, Ward came down from Walker’s bedroom and announced her passing. Following her funeral, Ward continued working at Camp Upton for a short time, then returned to Indianapolis in June 1919 after completing more than two years in uniform. He remained in the Army Reserve and cultivated connections made during his military service, seeds that would blossom into a government career. 

In Indianapolis, Ward rebuilt his medical/surgical practice and adjusted to civilian life. He and his wife, Zella, also grappled with the loss of their son, 9-year-old Joseph Jr., who died during the 1918 flu pandemic. 

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