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VA History Highlights

First African American Hospital Director in VA History

Historical portrait of Colonel Joseph Henry WardColonel Joseph Henry Ward, M.D., was the first African American hospital director in VA's history. He was appointed in January 1924 to oversee the Veterans Bureau's first and only racially segregated veterans hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, and worked with Veterans Bureau Medical Director, Dr. Charles M. Griffith, until he assumed responsibility as Medical Officer in Charge on July 7, 1924. The hospital was staffed entirely by employees of African American heritage until 1954 when racial segregation officially ended in VA hospitals.

Joseph Henry Ward was born on August 26, 1872 in North Carolina, but his family later moved to Indiana. Little is known of his early life, but by 1897 he had graduated from the Physio-Medical School of Indiana and established one of the first hospitals for African Americans in Indianapolis by 1910. He enlisted for military service during World War I on August 10, 1917 and served with the 92nd Division medical corps. The 92nd Division was one of two segregated units of the Army, at that time, and Dr. Ward became one of only two African American officers in the medical corps to attain the rank of Major during the war. He was honorably discharged from active service on May 29, 1919 and continued in the reserves until September 23, 1934. He left the Army at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and returned to his practice in Indianapolis.

On February 12, 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge dedicated a new veterans hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama for African American veterans who served in World War I. The segregated hospital was authorized as part of the First Langley Act in March 1921 and constructed by the Treasury Department for the Public Health Service, which had been charged along with the Bureau of War Risk Insurance with providing hospitals and medical care to World War I veterans. While it was still under construction, Congress consolidated all World War I veterans programs in August 1921 into a new bureau known as the Veterans Bureau. President Warren Harding signed Executive Order 3669 on April 29, 1922 and transferred the Tuskegee veterans hospital, along with roughly 60 other Public Health Service veterans' hospitals, to the new Veterans Bureau.

Tuskegee was known as U.S.V.H. (U.S. Veterans Hospital) No. 91 until 1930, when it became part of the Veterans Administration. It was the second Federal hospital established specifically for African Americans military veterans, but the only one that ever operated as an entirely segregated hospital. The first one opened in 1870 as the Southern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (VHA origins) in Hampton, Virginia. The Southern Branch in Hampton was not a segregated facility, although it could have been, as the managers established it for African Americans and other Union veterans who preferred a more moderate climate. At the time, the other three National Homes were located in the North (Maine, Wisconsin, and Ohio). Much to their surprise, former U.S. Colored Troops preferred the Central Branch in Dayton over Hampton until the early 20th century.

Getting the Tuskegee facility off the ground and operational was not an easy task in the racially segregated South. In June 1923, four months after the hospital was dedicated, Veterans Bureau Administrator General Frank T. Hines announced his intention to staff the hospital with African American medical professionals. The announcement created an uproar in the community pitting Ku Klux Klan members against anyone who wanted the hospital staffed according to General Hines' wishes. General Hines was not easily intimidated and a community committee was formed to consider the matter. By mid-August, the first African American doctors were hired for the new hospital and Col. Ward was hired in January 1924 to serve as its director.

One of Dr. Ward's associates, Dr. John A. Kenney, who was physician to Booker T. Washington and an active member of the National Medical Association, was one of a group of Tuskegee Institute doctors who bravely stood up and fought to have the Tuskegee veterans hospital open with African American staff. He did so at great risk to his own life and ultimately moved to New Jersey after his family was terrorized and a cross burned in their front yard. His son, Dr. Howard W. Kenney, later became medical director at VA's Tuskegee hospital and in 1962 was the first African American to integrate a formerly all-white VA hospital when he became Director at East Orange, NJ, and seven years later became VA's first African American VA Regional Director.

Tuskegee VHA key staff, 1933
Tuskegee VHA key staff, 1933
Col. Ward, front row, center

Dr. Ward led the new veterans hospital through its tumultuous beginnings, hired top-notch staff, and shaped its success as an all-black hospital. He even proposed medical internships in cooperation with Tuskegee Institute as early as 1925, a generation before a national program was initiated at VA in 1946. He retired in 1936, after 12 years of service and returned to Indianapolis. Dr. Ward lived to see the end of racial integration in VA hospitals and died on December 12, 1956. He was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Tuskegee VA Medical Center, which began as a segregated hospital for African American veterans of World War I, is unique in American history. Its significance and contribution to the story of our nation was recognized on March 19, 2012 when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Secretary of the Interior.

Prepared by Darlene Richardson, Historian, Veterans Health Administration

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92nd Division in World War I

Dr. Ward