The Life of Madam C.J. Walker’s Doctor: Part III, Tuskegee University

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In 2018, I was invited to speak at a conference in Atlanta for the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference. One of the excursions included a visit to Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. I pinched myself feeling Great Grandfather Joseph, Great Grandmother Zella and my grandmother Mur’s spirit leading me to their old stomping grounds. To prepare myself for the visit, I contacted their university archives to see if they could help me locate any documents and photographs about them. I reread Up From Slavery, the 1901 autobiography by Booker T. Washington. After reading his autobiography, I pondered on how integral both DuBois and Washington’s work was to the upliftment of a people who were in the most brutal form of bondage in human history. Upon entering the campus, I marveled at the ingenuity of this Historically Black College and University built by the hands of students and the community right after slavery. I was awe struck once I saw Booker T. Washington’s home, realizing the symbolism of what his mansion meant for 19th century black southerners. 

Booker T. Washington’s home built in 1899 by Tuskegee University students.

The Oaks, the beautiful 7,800-sq.-ft. red brick home across from Tuskegee University, has always gained notice. Three stories high, the Queen Anne-style home has a wrap-around porch and high ceilings.

Built for Washington in 1899 by the university’s first students, the home is as sturdy as his aspirations for the African-American students who followed him. Designed by Robert Taylor, the first black graduate of MIT, The Oaks was the first modern house in Macon County featuring indoor plumbing and electricity. The beautiful home served as an example of what African-Americans could achieve when allowed an education.

(7,800-square feet! Just stop for a moment and realize what that meant for black men in 1899 to build Washington’s mansion with indoor plumbing and electricity only eight years after electricity was installed in the White House.)

I understood immediately why my great grandparents were friends and thick in the fight for equality with Washington. Especially, my Great Grandfather Joseph who was born in poverty, shunned from his biological father Napoleon Hagan and raised by his mother Mittie Roena Ward in North Carolina. Dr. Ward was friends with W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. He greatly respected both of them. They admired his work and love for the upliftment of his people. Washington died before Great Grandfather Joseph was appointed to Tuskegee’s Veterans Hospital as Chief Surgeon. I think he would have advocated for his appointment just as Tuskegee University President Robert Russa Moten did.

Tuskegee University Veterans Hospital

On June 15, 1923 the VA Hospital at Tuskegee admitted its first 250 patients. President Harding and W.W. Brandon, Governor of the State of Alabama, appointed Colonel Robert Stanley as the first manager and medical officer in charge of the newly dedicated hospital. Dr. Charles M. Griffith succeeded Colonel Stanley as manager on September 2, 1923 and served until 1924, when Dr. Joseph H. Ward was named to the post. 

Approximately 116 acres of land were transformed into a farm and incorporated into the rehabilitation and treatment program. The freshly picked vegetables, hogs slaughters in the abattoir, and poultry were put to good use in the hospital kitchen. The hospital was continually involved in either a permanent or temporary expansion program of buildings and facilities for the housing and treatment of its patients. Quonset huts, surplus from the military service, were added to augment the permanent brick structures. The huts were beneficial to the hospital and were utilized for a Canteen, bowling alley, therapy clinics, a portio of the general library, and storage space…Throughout the 1930 decade, the hospital continued to grow. The bed capacity increased to approximately 1498 by 1940. 

I heard the stories from my grandmother on how it felt to travel past the Mason Dixon Line in 1924. The survival switch that turned on once they reached the South, understanding that his role and existence was a threat to Jim Crow and a huge achievement for his race. A highly educated black man and World War I Lieutenant Colonel from North Carolina appointed as Medical Director to a Federal Veterans Hospital in the heart of Alabama. Right before his arrival, the Klan in hoods, arms and torches marched on campus threatening to burn it down and lynch anyone in their way. Only the U.S. Federal Government could intervene. After all, the new Veterans Hospital was federal property and they had the right to hire who they pleased. 

Great Grandfather Joseph was steady, focused and ready to assume his new role and Zella, his lovely wife and daughter Mary were right by his side. Mur’s face would glow every time she told stories about her life in Tuskegee. Playing in George Washington Carver’s garden, sitting on his lap as he told her stories while her father would ride on a horse across campus to survey the grounds. I finally was able to locate documents and photographs of their time at Tuskegee University from 1924 to 1936. My colleague and friend Dr. Lindsey Lunsford, a graduate of Tuskegee University spent time in their archives digging to find any research she could provide for our family. Dr. Lunsford gave me an entire file of documents and photographs. I was thrilled to hold actual telegrams and typed letters by my great grandfather. To see his signature and professional correspondences made me shed tears of joy. I felt closer to them and could feel my grandmother Mur hugging me. 

This is what Dr. Lunsford found. In the summer of 1924, Dr. Joseph Henry Ward, a North Carolinian by birth was appointed as Medical Director to the only Federal Veterans Hospital for African Americans. After his outstanding service overseas in World War I as Lieutenant Colonel of the Medical Reserve Corps; the establishment of the first ‘colored’ hospital in Indianapolis; his service as the personal physician for Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire; he humbly accepted the position, left his Indianapolis practice with his brother in law, Dr. Mark Batties and packed his home to move to Tuskegee, University. 

Prior to his campus arrival, the Klan stormed the campus and U.S. President Warren G. Harding and Tuskegee University President Robert Russa Moton received tremendous backlash from white southerners and black northerners. The Pittsburgh Courier wrote a scathing article on June 23, 1924 blaming Dr. Moton for Alabama State Senator “Cotton Tom” Thomas Heflin for inciting protests by white Alabamans. Senator Heflin said, “hot-headed Northern Negroes were planning to send troops to Alabama to offend law-abiding Alabamans”. Northern African-Americans called Moton a ‘Negro Lacky’ for not standing his ground to demand that qualified black hospital administrators be hired to positions of power at the new Veterans Hospital. W.E.B. DuBois, President Harding and Tuskegee President Moton intervened and  recommended the appointment of Dr. Joseph Ward. 

From the beginning, Dr. Ward was entering into a hostile environment. White Alabamans upset that their own Jim Crow laws were not working in their favor. Their own Jim Crow laws prohibited white female nurses from touching black veterans. In addition, the removal of Colonel Robert H. Stanley ignited more tension. Colonel Stanley’s disdain for hiring more qualified African American medical staff to treat 600 patients with only 100 operating beds under his watch led to his removal. Tuskegee University, the ‘colored race’ and the U.S. Government were depending on Dr. Ward to turn the tide but not without oversight. General Frank T. Hines was selected as Director of the Veterans Bureau. In a 1993 Tuskegee University Program celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital it states:

Before coming to Tuskegee, Dr. Ward was sent by General Hines to visit a number of other Bureau hospitals to study their administration. He came to Tuskegee with the technical rank of Chief of Surgical Service but was immediately taken in charge by the temporary officer-in-charge Dr. Griffith. In July 1924, Dr. Griffith notified General Hines that Dr. Ward and the complete black staff were ready to take charge and the change was made. The staff consisted of 21 officers with numerous assistants.

Three of the men in the neuropsychiatric section served their internships at Massachusetts General Hospital. Other schools represented in the personnel included Harvard, Colombia, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Fisk University, Atlanta University, Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, and many others.

Thus the problem of personnel was solved in a way to give pride and satisfaction to black people to maintain efficiency. Twenty-one black physicians and dentists realized that this was the first time that the government had given them recognition as professionals and they were determined to serve the patients to the best of their abilities in order to justify the faith and confidence of those who placed them there.

The Registrar’s Office showed that during the first year 354 patients were discharged with maximum benefits from the facility. Dr. Ward remained Medical Officer-In-Charge until 1936. Firm in purpose, alert in demeanor and fair in his dealing with subordinate personnel, Colonel Ward amassed an enviable reputation in the Tuskegee community. His legendary inspection tours on horseback and his manly fearlessness in dealing with community groups at a time when there was a fixed subordinate attitude in black-white relations were two of the more popular recollections of those who knew him.

My grandmother Mur grew up on Tuskegee University’s campus.The Ward’s sent her to boarding school at the prestigious all girls Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Mur’s picture is on one of the walls at Spelman College when they had a boarding school. Mur would eventually return to Tuskegee University to meet her parents. A young Engineering Tuskegee professor named Erskine Goode Roberts from Boston, Massachusetts that held a 1932 Masters Degree in Engineering from M.I.T fell in love with my grandmother. They were to be married on Tuskegee’s campus. 

Mur wanted a small wedding but Zella was determined to have a proper wedding. Zella Locklear Ward was a no nonsense woman, a Lumbee woman to her core. Zella had one of the Tuskegee ‘white only’ department stores shut down their store so that my grandmother could pick out her wedding dress. This wasn’t the first time that Zella looked at Jim Crow in the eye and stared it down. My mother remembers them visiting Tuskegee to honor her grandfather and Zella once again walked into a ‘white only’ department store with her granddaughter holding her hand and daring anyone to say anything to her once my mother tried on an Easter hat. This was Zella and her only daughter and surviving child was to be married to a prominent engineer. This wedding was going to be epic. 

(The setting for this portrait–a large room with a hanging chandelier, oriental rug, and garlands of foliage draped from the ceiling speaks to the wealth and taste of the families, as does the elegant backdrop for the wedding photograph of Cecile Nicholas Dawson.) 

Mary Roena Ward and Erskine Goode Roberts were married in 1934 at the Ward home on Tuskegee’s campus. The intimate ceremony was attended by faculty members, colleagues and family members. Both maternal and paternal grandmothers gave their blessings to my grandmother Mur. Mur and my grandfather Erskine left Tuskegee for Howard University in Washington D.C. where Grandfather Erskine was to return to his new position as a faculty member in their Engineering department. My mother Alice and her brother Erskine were born a few years after the ceremony. 

When Dr. Lunsford gave me the file from Tuskegee’s archives, I read every single correspondence, article and book excerpts that discussed my great grandfather’s time at Tuskegee’s Veterans Hospital. As a child, hearing stories of him riding his horse on campus, making sure that the hospital was spotless and under strict standards had me mesmerized. I knew that my family’s story needed to be told. In my mind, I visualize every moment of their story on the big screen. I also knew that I had to tell all of it. Even the betrayal and envy of others. In the 1993 70th anniversary program from Tuskegee University’s archives one statement stood out, “Colonel Ward amassed an enviable reputation in the Tuskegee community.” Envy and betrayal was always a constant threat but it never deterred Dr. Ward from providing superb service to his patients and his race. 

Dr. Ward had tremendous pressure to succeed. However, it was not without envy from some who worked at the hospital, at the Veteran’s Bureau and from Alabama politicians. In 1925, a disgruntle employee named W.L. Jones, Chief Engineer reported Dr. Ward to the Veteran’s Bureau for a number of charges. These charges included serving a luncheon to ‘Negro’ physicians who attended Tuskegee Institute Clinic; the erection of a garage for physicians; the use of gas for Dr. Ward’s car to attend meetings in other cities; and the use of hospital trucks to transport musical instruments for a program at the hospital. The charges also included a private correspondence between Dr. Moton and Dr. Ward. The logical question then is, “How did Jones have access to Dr. Ward’s private correspondence?” The answer was simple. Jones and others planted one of his men in Dr. Ward’s office as an orderly that was able to obtain documents and information to distort and use in an effort to destroy Dr. Ward. The charges were dropped after General Frank T. Hines, Director of the Veterans’ Bureau confirmed that every request was approved by him and Dr. Moton. 

Dr. Ward had enemies both black and white who did not want to see the success of a ‘colored only’ veterans hospital to be efficiently directed by the first black man responsible for thousands of black veterans and a three million dollar budget in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, Dr. Ward was eventually charged in 1936 by a federal grand jury for holding petty cash for black veterans admitted to the hospital. So many of these injured black veterans were impoverished and had no money to purchase food. My great grandfather with his own money and other caring staff members collected money to make sure that veterans admitted to the hospital could afford to purchase a meal or a snack. Although, Ward and those that were loyal to his service were not in the wrong, the petty cash bank was seen as a misappropriation of funds. 

Years after Ward’s appointment, racial tension had not entirely dissipated. In 1936, a federal grand jury charged Ward and thirteen others on the hospital’s staff with “conspiracy to defraud the Government through diversion of hospital supplies.” After more than eleven years of service, the esteemed leader was dismissed “under a cloud,” and he plead guilty to the charges in 1937.[11] Black newspapers provided a different perspective on Ward’s rapid descent from grace. According to The New York Age, Black Republicans viewed the “wholesale indictment of the Negro personnel” at Veterans Hospital No. 91 as an attempt by Southern Democrats to replace Black staff with white, to “rob Negroes of lucrative jobs.”[12] The paper added that these Southern Democrats tried to “take advantage of the administration of their own party in Washington and oust colored executives on charges they would not have dared to file under a Republican regime.” These Black employees, the paper alleged, became the “hapless victims of dirty politics.” Given the previous attempts of the white community to usurp control of the veterans hospital, one is tempted to see truth in this interpretation. After Ward’s dismissal, he quietly returned home to Indianapolis and resumed his private practice, which had moved to Boulevard Place. He practiced there until at least 1949 and in 1956 he died in Indianapolis. 

The struggle for leadership of the new veterans hospital shifted the threat of African American autonomy from theoretical to real for the white Jim Crow South. It exposed the organizational capabilities of the white community in terms of protesting the possibility of this autonomy. It also exposed the capabilities of the Black community in terms of demanding their own governance, efforts Dr. Ward ensured were not made in vain. The young man who journeyed out of the South in search of better opportunities later returned to create them for others. Yet somehow his efforts are virtually absent from the historical record.

(A letter written by Tuskegee University President Robert Russa Moton in 1926 to General Frank T. Hines, Director of the Veteran’s Bureau Affairs trying to defend Dr. Ward)


Dr. Ward and Zella returned to Indianapolis in 1936 to his sanitarium which now had fewer patients now that the Indianapolis City Hospital was desegregated and allowed black doctors to practice medicine there. However, my mother, her brother and all of her friends were born in his sanitarium. Dr. Ward practiced medicine for fifteen more years until he retired. The Ward Sanitarium became a boarding house again. Zella returned to her social circles, activism and late night card games and Dr. Ward continued to mentor many black doctors in Indianapolis. In the next post, I will share stories that my mother and grandmother told me about Joseph and Zella’s final days. A closing chapter of love, betrayal and determination of many to unravel their legacy and contributions to American history. 


Tuskegee University archives ‘Dr. Joseph Henry Ward’ file 1924-1936


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