Lt. Col. Joseph Henry Ward, M.D., was the first African American hospital director in VA’s history. Appointed in January 1924, he oversaw the Veterans Bureau’s first and only racially segregated Veterans’ hospital. Located in Tuskegee, Ala., only employees of African American heritage staffed the hospital until 1954. Then, racial segregation officially ended in VA hospitals.
Ward was born in 1872 in North Carolina. By 1897, he had graduated from the Physio-Medical School of Indiana. He established one of the first hospitals for African Americans in Indianapolis in 1910. Later, he enlisted for military service during World War I.
Ward became one of only two African American officers in the medical corps to attain the rank of major during the war. Subsequently, he left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and returned to his practice in Indianapolis.
In 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge dedicated a new Veterans hospital in Tuskegee for African American Veterans who served in World War I.
Getting the Tuskegee facility off the ground and operational in the racially segregated South was not an easy task. VA dedicated the hospital in February 1923. Four months later, Gen. Frank T. Hines announced his intention to staff the hospital with African American medical professionals. Hines was the Veterans Bureau administrator. The announcement created an uproar in the community. Accordingly, Ku Klux Klan members pitted themselves against anyone who wanted the hospital staffed based on Hines’ wishes.
Kenney family doctors at Tuskegee
Hines was not easily intimidated. As a result, VA leadership hired the first African American doctors for the new hospital. In addition, it hired Ward, in January 1924, to serve as its director.
One of Ward’s associates, Dr. John A. Kenney, was a physician to Booker T. Washington. He also was an active member of the National Medical Association and one of a group of Tuskegee Institute doctors who fought to have the Tuskegee Veterans hospital open with an African American staff. He did so at great risk to his own life. Ultimately, Kenney moved to New Jersey after extremists terrorized his family and burned a cross in their front yard.
Kenney’s son, Dr. Howard W. Kenney, later became the medical director at VA’s Tuskegee hospital. In 1962, Howard Kenney was the first African American to integrate a formerly all-white VA hospital when he became the director at East Orange, N.J. Seven years later, he became VA’s first African American VA regional director.
Ahead of his time
Ward led the new Veterans’ hospital through its tumultuous beginnings. He hired a top-notch staff and shaped its success as an all-black hospital. And he continued to blaze new trails. For example, he proposed medical internships with Tuskegee Institute as early as 1925. This was a generation before VA initiated a national program, in 1946.
Ward retired in 1936 after 12 years of service and returned to Indianapolis. He lived to see the end of racial integration in VA hospitals and died Dec. 12, 1956. He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
The Tuskegee VA Medical Center is unique in American history. The Secretary of the Interior recognized its significance to the story of our nation March 19, 2012, when he listed it on the National Register of Historic Places.