In 1910, when Madam C.J. Walker moved to Indianapolis, she was immediately embraced by Black Indy. Before Walker could afford to open her own salon she built her clientele and customer base in the front parlor of the Ward’s home and sanitarium at 722 Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis, Indiana, my great grandparents home. The Ward residence always had a steady influx of notables of the time. They were all black professionals, society and club members working towards uplifting African Americans Post-Reconstruction.
There was George Knox, a formerly enslaved man who published a local black newspaper called the Indianapolis Freeman; Dr. Charleston Cox, a well known dentist and brother to Nettie, Freeman Ransom’s wife and Madam Walker’s attorney; State Senator Robert Brokenburr, the first African-American elected to the Indiana state legislature; Violet Davis Reynolds, Madam Walker’s Executive Director to the Walker empire, Dr. Joseph and Zella Ward and many others. Walker settled on Indianapolis because her doctor, lawyer and her friend Zella all lived in Indianapolis. Walker looked at other places for her corporate headquarters but Indianapolis was the city that supported her and stood by her until her death.
In 1917, Madam Walker broke ground to build the Madam C.J. Walker Building in Indianapolis, the world headquarters for her hair and beauty empire. The Walker building would become a tremendous feat, exemplifying her incredible success and would put Black Indianapolis on the map, as a hub for black professionals. Although Walker died before the building was finished, it became a center “of entertainment, business and pride” for Black Indianapolis.
(Photo courtesy of the National Museum of African American History & Culture)
My mother Alice remembers The Coffee Pot, on the first floor of the Walker building, a meet and greet coffee shop for black politicians and professionals and the dental office where her best friend Charlene’s father Dr. Cox operated. They also had a ballroom where dances were held for special occasions and a movie theater. The Madam C.J. Walker Building became an asset to the community and a beacon of hope for newly arrived southern black refugees.
So when Madam Walker and her husband C.J. Walker lived and operated her business in the Ward residence, this was the community that she employed and loved dearly. Walker’s professional and personal relationships inspired her to give and do more for the upliftment of her people. Walker donated often to help World War I black soldiers and build the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis. Walker was inspired by the men and women who cultivated friendships with her and who served the community.
My grandmother Mur and my mother Alice had fond memories of all of these amazing people who Joseph and Zella entertained often in the Ward residence. Mur always told me that they were ‘race’ men and women who would do anything to uplift their people. I remember listening to her talk about times when her father would treat patients in his sanitarium, the only Indianapolis hospital for African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century. Times when Joseph would drive to rural areas to deliver babies where there was no light, only a humble lantern to bring life into this world.
In the morning, Mur would wake to find baskets of vegetables and fruits on the side of the Ward house, the only payment many of his patients could afford. Health insurance didn’t exist and major hospitals wouldn’t treat African Americans. In many instances, great grandfather Joseph would treat his community for free. Joseph made house calls, delivered babies and saved so many lives in Indianapolis during the late 19th and early part of the 20th century.
He also convinced administrators at the segregated City Hospital to allow Black nurses to take courses alongside white students. This opened professional opportunities to African American women in an era in which they were often relegated to domestic service and manual labor.
With that same spirit of giving back to his community, great grandfather Joseph enlisted to serve in the Army Medical Corps in France with the 92nd Division Medical Corps when he was 45 years old. Great grandfather Joseph became one of two African Americans to achieve the rank of Major in World War I. Mur once told me that the French were so impressed with his surgical skills on the battlefield that they wanted to give him a medal of honor. When the Army found out that the French were interested in awarding Lt. Colonel Joseph Ward with a medal of honor, he was commanded to report to his commanding officer. Mur said that the commanding officer never read Joseph’s file before they met and was shocked to find out that the ‘gifted hands’ surgeon admired by the French was black.
At this point in the story, Zella lost her only son to the Spanish Influenza when he was nine years old. The morgue carried his lifeless body out of their home while Zella and Mur still recovered from the virus that killed 50 million people worldwide. Zella and my grandmother Mur awaited for Joseph’s return from France to grieve together as a family. When Joseph returned, their family their mourning period was brief.
In mid February of 1919, the Wards were invited to visit Madam Walker in her New York estate and attend the largest parade for World War I African American soldiers in Harlem. In A’lelia Bundles book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker on page 267 she wrote, “Dozens of men and their families gladly made the trip to Irvington. Among Madam Walker’s overnight houseguests that month was her physician Joseph Ward, who, as a colonel during his tour of duty in France, had become the U.S. Army’s highest ranking black medical officer as well as the first African American to command a base hospital. His wife, Zella, still grieving the loss of their son from the 1918 flu pandemic, had also joined him. With an interval of several months since their last visit in Chillicothe, Ward immediately noticed Madam Walker’s deteriorating health. Her kidney disease-with its telltale bloating and lethargy-had advanced significantly, causing the doctor to insist that she curtail her speaking engagements.” By May, Madam Walker lost consciousness, Dr. Ward heard her say, “I want to live to help my race.” On May 25, 1919, my great grandfather Dr. Joseph Ward announced to Walker’s family and friends who waited outside of her bedroom. “It is over.”
Joseph returned to his practice in Indianapolis after Madam Walker’s death. By 1923, Joseph received an official letter from Tuskegee University President Robert Russa Moten describing the conditions of the segregated Veterans Hospital No. 91. A white Medical Officer-In-Charge, Colonel Robert H. Stanely was appointed to head the ‘colored only’ veterans hospital at Tuskegee. The veterans hospital planned to accommodate 600 patients with 100 operating beds for tuberculosis and PTSD cases. However, Colonel Stanley didn’t want to hire black nurses and doctors. White nurses who worked at the veterans hospital were not allowed to treat black veterans in Jim Crow South. Black patients were either unfairly treated or died in the veterans hospital. Colonel Stanley’s disdain for hiring a black medical staff continued.
(Dr. Robert Russa Moten, President of Tuskegee University, Courtesy of Scurlock Photographic Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History)
He took heed, and an hour after Calhoun fled, approximately 50,000 Klan members marched on Tuskegee and burned a forty-foot cross, before silently marching near the veterans’ hospital. Although violence was avoided, one “fair-skinned” man reportedly “infiltrated the Klan by passing as white” and learned they planned to kill a Black leader and blow up the Tuskegee Institute. The community at large expressed their disapproval of Black leadership by protesting at the White House. Southern politicians did so by writing pieces for the local papers, like State Senator R. H. Powell, who insisted in The Montgomery Advertiser“ We know that a bunch of negro officers, with uniforms and big salaries and the protection of Uncle Sam . . . will quickly turn this little town into a place of riot such as has been experienced in so many places where there has occurred an outbreak between the races.”
After members of the KKK paraded on Tuskegee’s campus and threatened Dr. Moton’s life, they then paraded to the veteran hospital’s grounds, pulled off their hoods, went to the hospital dining room and were served a meal by the white medical staffers. Black civil rights activists and organizations were outraged. The Veteran’s Bureau investigated the actions of the Ku Klux Klan and found that the group abused government property.
As a child, I imagined these Tuskegee men standing up to the KKK and their supporters, demanding that African American veterans receive fair treatment and quality healthcare. I remember the story vividly from Mur’s mouth. How Dr. Moten and other Tuskegee men did their best to make sure no harm came to anyone on campus. Can you imagine the fear they must have had seeing thousands of KKK men with hoods and arms parading Tuskegee’s campus? Their fight to hire black staffers at one of the largest veterans hospital in the United States would not be in vain.
In 1923, General Frank T. Hines was selected to be the Director of the Veteran’s Bureau to rebrand the bureau and to hire black staffers for the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital. Hines task, commanded by President Coolidge, to replace southern white staffers with an all black medical staff was met with tremendous opposition. A selection committee searched high and low throughout the United States to replace Colonel Stanley with an African American hospital administrator.
After several months of searching, my great grandfather Dr. Joseph Ward was selected and urged to accept the position. After careful consideration, my great grandfather Joseph accepted the position. Joseph packed his suitcase and would meet with General Hines and Dr. Moten to visit other veteran hospitals for further hospital administration training . Zella and Mur, still grieving the loss of ‘Buddy’ packed their house to make the long trip to Tuskegee University in Alabama. In Part III, I will share stories and research about their time at Tuskegee University.
In October 1924, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an essay about my great grandfather Joseph entitled The Case of the Tuskegee Hospital. Please read this outstanding piece of history about my great grandfather in Du Bois’s own words.
(Photo courtesy of UMass Amherst, The Case of the Tuskegee Hospital by W.E.B. Du Bois, October 1924)
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“Making Good at ‘The Tuskegee’ United States Veterans’ Hospital, No. 91,” The Buffalo (New York) American, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.
Dr. Clifton O. Dummett and Eugene H. Dibble,”Historical Notes on the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital,” Journal of the National Medical Association 54, no. 2 (March 1962), 135.
Editorial, “The U.S. Veterans’ Hospital, Tuskegee, Ala., Colonel Joseph Henry Ward,” Journal of the National Medical Association 21, no. 2 (1929): 65-66.
Tuskegee VAMC Seventieth Anniversary Celebration: 1923-1993, Tuskegee University Archives. Dr. Joseph Ward File.