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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Historical marker commemorates African American medical pioneer

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Leon Bates discovered Dr. Joseph Ward by accident. While researching for his dissertation about the police in Indianapolis, the history doctoral student at Wayne State University learned the first African American police officer killed in the line of duty in Indianapolis died in a place called Ward’s Sanitarium.

Bates never heard of Ward’s Sanitarium, so he began researching the facility.

One revelation led to another, and over a few years Bates uncovered the story of the hospital’s founder, Dr. Joseph Ward. Ward was a surgeon, entrepreneur, Army medic and pioneer. Ward’s story impressed Bates so much that he petitioned and fundraised for a historical marker to commemorate the doctor’s life. On Aug. 17, the Indiana Historical Bureau unveiled the marker on the corner of West 21st Street and North Boulevard Place near where Ward’s Sanitarium originally stood.

“Once I started to dig into this, I thought, ‘How in the world did the city of Indianapolis not know who this man was?’” Bates asked. 

Born in 1872 to a former slave and an African American who was born free, Ward moved to Indianapolis as a child and worked as a driver for George Hasty, a white doctor. Hasty was so impressed with Ward’s work ethic that he paid for his education, including medical school. In 1907, Ward founded Ward’s Sanitarium and Nurses’ Training School, which was the only place in Indianapolis for African Americans to receive medical attention or medical training. 

At 45 years old, Ward became a medic in World War I. He became the first African American to lead a U.S. Army field hospital and one of two African Americans to earn the rank of major in World War I. Dr. Alice Palmer, Ward’s granddaughter who attended the unveiling ceremony, said the mannerisms of a serviceman stayed with Ward for the rest of his life. 

“He was always very military,” Palmer said. “He lined up his brushes and lined up his shoes. They were always shined. And he was a very good human being.”

In 1924, Ward assumed leadership of Veterans’ Hospital No. 91 in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was the only veterans’ hospital in the country for African Americans, so Black soldiers from around the country would travel there for medical attention. Veterans’ Hospital No. 91 had over 1,000 beds, making it one of the nation’s largest hospitals. This means Ward was not only the first African American to lead a veterans’ hospital, but also the first to lead a hospital that large. Despite protests from politicians and the Ku Klux Klan regarding his leadership, Ward held the position for 13 years.

 “He does all this between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education,” Bates said.

“… Everything he does is at the height of the Jim Crow era in this country, and this man managed to do all these things in one lifetime. If I can do half of what he did, I would be proud of myself.” 

When Bates petitioned the Indiana Historical Bureau, he expected they would deny his request, but to his surprise the bureau approved. Bates contacted both individuals and organizations to raise $3,050 for the marker. Ward was an American Legion district commander, so Bates contacted the Legion for support.

“It’s crucial to us to have members of our organization find a role of service in the community,” Rees Morgan, 11th district commander of the American Legion, said. “Dr. Ward epitomized that commitment.”

During the marker’s unveiling, Bates, Ward’s descendants and representatives from the American Legion, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the mayor’s office revealed the sign. 

“I couldn’t believe that as a physician and former health commissioner that I had no knowledge of the wonderful contributions that Joseph H. Ward made in his day,” Dr. Woody Myers, gubernatorial candidate and former Indiana health commissioner, said. “… He is a legend. He is a hero. He is someone everyone in the state of Indiana should know about.”

Before the marker, the only place in Indianapolis publicly acknowledging Ward was his government issued gravestone, so Palmer believes Bates’ research and the marker revive a lost piece of history.

“I want to thank those individuals and organizations that brought this to fruition,” Palmer said.  “To stand on this ground again is a sacred thing for me and my family. … I bow to the work of all of you.” 

Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.

Dr. Joseph Ward in his military uniform. (Photo/American Legion)

Leon Bates unveils the historic marker honoring Dr. Joseph Ward. (Photo/Ben Lashar)

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