The Trials and Triumphs of Dr. Joseph H. Ward

Today’s post was written by David R. Hardin, archivist at the National Archives at St. Louis

bird's eye view of the site showing buildings of the VA hospital at Tuskegee
Veteran’s Administration Hospital, Tuskegee, AL (NAID 102252457)

On February 12th, 1923, Veteran’s Hospital #91 opened in Tuskegee, Alabama. Initially the hospital’s focus was treating service-related respiratory and mental health issues of African American veterans. However, the hospital would grow to become a general hospital after June of 1924 when veteran’s benefits were liberalized to cover non-service related disabilities. When the hospital was proposed, land was donated by the Tuskegee Institute to build a campus. With that came an understanding that the hospital would be run and staffed by African Americans. However, the Warren G. Harding administration appointed a white superintendent to run the hospital, who then appointed a mostly white staff.

After direct negotiations and petitioning by such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Medical Association, Dr. Joseph H. Ward, an African American doctor at the hospital, was appointed as Medical Officer in charge of US Veteran’s Hospital #91 in July of 1924. His appointment was met with widespread celebration and praise. In Dr. Ward’s Official Personnel Folder (OPF) there are letters from the NAACP, National Medical Association, and prominent members of society such as Charles Clinton Spaulding, applauding his appointment. With his appointment also came a more aggressive effort to replace white staff with qualified Black employees to run the hospital.

mostly Black hospital staff standing on steps in 3 rows
Tuskegee VA Hospital Key Staff. Dr. Ward in front row center, W.S. Burke to his right (NAID 102252459)

Dr. Ward was born in Wilson, North Carolina on August 26, 1872. He graduated from Indiana Medical College and received advanced training from the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Ward ran his own twenty bed hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana, providing medical care to African Americans of that city. When the United States entered World War I Dr. Ward enlisted. After his initial three month training as a private, he was commissioned as a medical officer in the Medical Corps. He would eventually rise to the rank of major during his service in Europe as ward surgeon at Base Hospital #49 as a part of the American Expeditionary Forces. In a recommendation letter from Indiana Senator James E. Watson, it states that Dr. Ward was the only African American commissioned as a major in the Medical Corps during WWI.

Ward standing, in military uniform
Dr. Joseph Ward – Only Colored Major in US Medical Corps Arrives Home on the “France,” Feb 10, 1919 (NAID 45529698)

Dr. Ward’s OPF shows that he put in the effort to make Tuskegee a top notch facility. Letters in his file show that he personally recruited qualified staff for the hospital, such as Nurse Ada Joiner of Washington, DC. He routinely toured regional facilities, and sought excess equipment from those facilities that would aid his staff at his hospital. We see praise coming to him and the hospital not only in his personnel file but also in congressional committee meetings. His record from 1923-1934 is fairly mundane. It shows time off requests, official travel, pay records, raises, promotions, and correspondence. All things ones would expect to see in an OPF for someone in his position. The prosaic day-to-day activities came to a halt in 1935 when Dr. Ward was put under investigation.

requests to have the 'with prejudice' note removed from his dismissal from the VA
Letter from FB Ransom to Gen. Frank Hines, July 1, 1940 (Official Personnel Folder of Joseph Ward)

On December 17, 1935 a hearing was convened to question Dr. Ward on 26 charges including mismanagement of government funds. On January 31, 1936 Dr. Ward was removed from his position and dismissed with prejudice. He would return to private practice in Indianapolis, and would never serve in a federal position for the rest of his life despite many petitions to have him reinstated. His Official Personnel Folder shows letters from Freeman Briley Ransom, personal lawyer to Madam C.J. Walker and General Manager to the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, prominent lawyer Richard Powell, and Dr. M.O. Bousfield of the Julius Rosenwald Fund pleading to have these charges dropped and have him restored to his position.

relates that WS Burke has made statements critical of the running of the VA hospital that were largely unfounded
Letter from Henry Fillingim to Dr. Charles Griffith, Dec 27, 1935 (OPF of Joseph Ward)

His personnel folder and the investigation witness statements therein do not show much in tangible evidence of why all 26 charges stuck. What it does show is that many employees and citizens of Tuskegee believe that a group of individuals conspired to have Dr. Ward removed. In multiple letters employees and citizens cite Tuskegee utility officer Walter S. Burke as the main agitator. In a letter from George Busby, it appears that he and Walter S. Burke were indeed the two individuals that voiced the charges that led to the investigation. Witnesses cite a disgruntled employee that lost the canteen contract at the hospital as the catalyst to move to remove Dr. Ward. They claim that Walter S. Burke was holding meetings around the town of Tuskegee, and that residents were taking bets on how fast they would make the removal happen. Walter S. Burke was found to have suppressed information during the investigation, intimidated and threatened witnesses, and misappropriated government supplies during his employment at Tuskegee.

On February 4th, 1931 Watson B. Miller, Chairman of the National Rehabilitation Committee of the American Legion, Washington, D.C. gave testimony before a congressional hearing for the Committee on World War Veteran’s Legislation. During his prepared portion he stated, “I have been to Tuskegee a couple of times and I join with these good gentlemen in believing that there is an astonishingly good medical job being done there considering the uncertainty with which we went into this experiment, and it was an experiment.” This statement sums up what the hospital, staff, and African Americans in general were up against. It shows the mindset of white superiority and the shock that African Americans could take care of themselves.

points out that the salary of Ward is well below what other ppl in his position make at similar hospitals and of similar rank
Letter from Principal of the Tuskegee Institute to C. Bascom Slemp, Oct 9, 1924 (OPF of Joseph Ward)

Dr. Ward did admit to two of the charges that were set against him. He admitted that he had on occasion taken government supplies in the form of food, and when his staff was caught taking food he would not dismiss them. Letters from his OPF show that he was underpaid for his position, and that he had to call on prominent members of society to petition his superiors for better pay. His staff likely felt the same burden. In his deposition during the investigation Dr. Ward stated “I was raised on the scraps of the white peoples’ kitchen”. Dr. Ward’s file shows that he knew how to take care of himself and his staff, and that he was done living off anyone’s leftovers.

Official Personnel Folder, Joseph Henry Ward: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, 1871-2001; Record Group 146: Records of the Veterans Administration, 7/21/1930- 3/15/1989, National Archives at St. Louis

Photographic Album Compiled for Frank T. Hines, 1/1/1923 – 12/31/1933 (NAID 83740240): Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007; Record Group 15, National Archives at College Park

World War Veterans’ Legislation: Subcommittee on Hospitals of the Committee on World War Veteran’s Legislation; Statement of Watson B. Miller, page 228; HathiTrust (, viewed 2/25/2021

This year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) has chosen Black Health and Wellness as the theme. We hope you enjoy blogs that reveal stories of Black health and wellness from the records of the National Archives.

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