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Metro Archives' 36 Notable Women of Nashville Virtual Exhibit

June 15, 2020

I started an exhibit in Metro Archives about 4 months ago that was originally only supposed to go through July. But as things quickly shifted course due to the COVID-19 pandemic, adaptation will continue to be our theme to assist our patrons.

The exhibit is "Nashville Voices: 36 Notable Women of Nashville", and its purpose is to honor 36 women for their achievements and positive impact they have had on Nashville. Why 36? Because it took 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment, which was officially adopted on August 26th, 1920. 

Tennessean clipping from August 26th, 1920
Tennessean clipping from August 26th, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was officially adopted.

This exhibit is sort of a preliminary display to what we're planning for the official anniversary in August (still tbd on that one). And, while there are a few local suffragists included in the 36, it isn't the intention of the display to only honor women that worked diligently for the passing of the 19th Amendment, but all women for their various achievements in this city. 

I wrote about this display a few months ago when I honored a few of the women in it, and this is now a part II in that series. Also, albeit I haven't finished this exhibit completely yet (sadly I know, but I had many other things I was working on the past few months), I'm including a slideshow below that creates a virtual exhibit of what's finished so far (which is the majority of the display). 

If you'd like to read Part 1 of the series first, though, check it out here

Nashville Voices: 36 Notable Women of Nashville Virtual Exhibit

Nashville Voices: 36 Notable Women of Nashville Virtual Exhibit
Virtual Exhibit of Metro Archives' "Nashville Voices: 36 Notable Women of Nashville".

Spotlight on 2 of the 36

Dr. Josie E. Wells

Photo of Dr. Josie Wells from the Nashville Globe newspaper, dated 07-01-1910
1910 Photo of Dr. Josie Wells from the Nashville Globe newspaper.

A woman of several firsts, Dr. Josie E. Wells was most notably known as being the city's first practicing female physician. Prior to that though, she was a nurse and possibly Meharry Medical College's first female graduate in 1904; in doing my research, I've read this in several areas and wonder if it means in her specific area of medicine, maybe. Because, in mentioning her name, there are a few other women I'd like to take note of too that were graduates of Meharry (although sadly, they're not among the 36 women of Nashville but will be a part of the honorable-mentions case which is still in process too):

Georgia Esther Lee Patton and Annie D. Gregg

Georgia Esther Lee Patton completed her normal courses at Central Tennessee College (also known as Walden College or University), then went on to study in the Meharry Medical Dept., graduating in 1893 with her classmate, Annie D. Gregg. Both women became the first African American women to receive a license to practice medicine and perform surgery in the state. I'll elaborate more on each woman in the display, but Patton went on to become the city of Memphis' first African American female physician. 

Bellina A. Moore

Tennessean drawing of Bellina A. Moore from February, 1897.
Tennessean drawing of Bellina A. Moore from February, 1897, as the Pharmaceutical Valedictorian.

Moore is another graduate of Meharry Medical College, but in a different field from the other women - Pharmacy. She was the valedictorian of her class in 1897. In her commencement speech, Moore stated:

"Home [was] the best and highest field for women, but not for all women. [Men had] held the heights so long that they were selfish and wanted women to stay on the lower levels,...[but] women [were] entering every profession and succeeding in all." 

If you're curious and would love to learn more about these women's stories, or other inspiring Tennessee women, I recommend this book...

And back to Dr. Well's story...

Dr. Well's area of specialty was in the diseases of women and children, and her main office was near downtown in Napier Court, but she also dedicated a portion of her time every week to the poor, at her office near Meharry. 

Not only did she have her own office, but she also served as the general physician for Walden University - where Meharry got its start when it was established as one of the Universities' departments in 1876. She served both the black and white communities, including the wives and daughters of employees at Meharry and Walden. 

In addition to her physician's duties, she also served as the superintendent for the nurse training program at Mercy Hospital. If you scroll back up to the newspaper clipping with her portrait, it mentions how she just closed a successful term as superintendent, in 1910. The training school was organized in 1900 and was later transferred to Meharry's hospital where Dr. Wells eventually became the superintendent.

Her transfer to the George W. Hubbard Hospital around 1912 occurred as a result of a factional fight among Meharry's faculty. She and a few other doctors claimed that they did not receive equal treatment at Robert F. Boyd's Mercy Hospital, and a committee was formed to solve the problem. 

The Hubbard Hospital Association was formed with J. C. Napier as the chairman, with financing from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation and the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Dr. Wells became the superintendent after it was officially completed and dedicated on November 29th, 1912. 

For more on Meharry Medical College and Mercy Hospital, a good resource that I've been using is...

Dr. Wells continued to further her education throughout her practice as well, like the trip she took to Michigan in 1913 for a course in Hydrotherapy and Electrotherapy, which according to the news article, is meant to help treat "...rhepmatism [rheumatism maybe?], gastric indigestion and all forms of nervous disorders." 

Nashville Globe clipping of Dr. Josie Wells trip to Michigan for training.
1913 Nashville Globe clipping of Dr. Josie Wells trip to Michigan for a course in Hydro and Electrotherapy.

In addition to her medical practice, Wells was a humanitarian. She was also a part of a group of women that formed an African American unit of the National Council of Defense that held a statewide war conference in December, 1918. 

She had a daughter as well, by the name of Alma Wells-Givens. She's included in a news clipping (see below) from the Nashville Globe, from 1908. 

Nashville Globe clipping from May, 1908.
Nashville Globe clipping from May, 1908 with Josie and her daughter, Alma.

One of her other firsts included being an assistant on the first thyroid surgery performed in Nashville. Alternatively and sadly, she passed away due to complications from a thyroid surgery, I believe in 1921. 

Maggie Porter

1936 Tennessean clipping showing a portrait of Maggie Porter
1936 Tennessean clipping showing a portrait of Maggie Porter

Next up is Maggie Porter, who was an original member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. 

She was born into slavery in 1853 in Lebanon, TN. Her mother was the chief domestic servant in the household of Henry Frazier, a wealthy planter. When the Civil War broke out and Union troops moved through Middle Tennessee, taking control of the city, Frazier took refuge in Nashville, taking Porter and her family with him. 

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Frazier freed Maggie and her family. Maggie's mother had first agreed to remain in Frazier's service, but when he refused to pay her wages, she went to work for another family. 

Music was something that Maggie appeared to enjoy all her life, including when she sat outside Nashville churches as a kid, in order to hear the music. 

Next, she attended school, starting with Joseph McKee's Presbyterian mission school. Then, the Fisk Free Colored School in 1866. She became one of the Normal Dept.'s first graduates two years later.

After school, Maggie started teaching - first at a school in Bellevue. This school was eventually burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, but she went on to teach at two more schools in the area for freed slaves. 

It was in 1870 when Porter found herself back at Fisk thanks to her musical talent. She had a beautiful soprano voice, and had performed at Fisk under director, George White, when she was in school. So in the winter of 1870, she was asked to star in Handel's "Cantata of Esther" that would be performed around the city in the spring. 

After that, she decided to join the Jubilee singers on their upcoming tour to raise funds to save the school. She sang many of the solo parts in the group's renditions of spirituals, which lead to her not-so-popular "prima donna" role. She even managed to get kicked out of the group for a time, but was brought back since the director realized they couldn't continue without her. 

Porter was with the group for seven years, helping raise the funds to save the university and allowing the school to purchase a new campus in Nashville. But after those seven years and several tours, Porter decided to stay in Germany after their last tour, not happy with the treatment she received in the group.

When she did return to Nashville she joined Frederick Loudin's re-organized company of Fisk Jubilee Singers, which had members of the original choir in it, but they were no longer associated with the school or school's choir. 

In the early 1880's, Maggie and her husband, Daniel Cole, decided to form their own group of "Original Jubilee Singers"; this group included Georgia Gordon, Jennie Jackson and Minnie Tate. They too went by the name "Fisk Jubilee Singers" and toured throughout the country, Canada, and Europe through the 1880's and 90's. One of the famous people they performed for was Mark Twain, when they performed in a beer garden in Switzerland, in 1897. 

After her days with the singing group, Porter and her family eventually decided to settle in Detroit, having grown tired and frustrated with the treatment and trouble she received in the South. She vowed never to set foot in the South again. 

In Detroit, her music career continued with the concerts she'd organize and perform, which established her as a leader in the African American arts' community. She and her husband also raised 3 children - 2 sons and a daughter. 

Her vow to never return to the South ended in 1931, when the school enticed her to come back for the 60th anniversary of the first tour of the Jubilee Singers. But she only returned under the conditions that a driver picked her up in Detroit because she refused to travel on segregated trains or buses. 

She was a well-respected and revered person both in Detroit and at Fisk for her talent and success.

Obituary for Maggie Porter
Obituary from the Chattanooga Daily Times for Maggie Porter.

She passed away in 1942 at the age of 89, having lived out the rest of her days in the Phyllis Wheatley home in Detroit. She was the longest-living member of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. 

If you'd like to learn more about her, here are a couple of recommended websites I used for my research:

'Til next time, 

Sarah 

lucille ball

Sarah

Sarah is an Archives Assistant with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.