Grad student obtains Indiana Historical Marker for accomplished African American doctor

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- At the end of graduate school, Leon Bates will be able to say something few students can -- that his work led to the State of Indiana installing a new historical marker in downtown Indianapolis to honor the achievement of an African American trailblazer.

"His name is forgotten in history, and we’ve kinda brought it back a little bit,” Bates said.

How it Started

An Indianapolis native, Bates decided to travel north of the state line to Detroit, Michigan. There, he's currently pursing a doctorate in history at Wayne State University. His research focuses on the relationship between Indianapolis police and the African American community, particularly in the early 1900's.

During his research, he came across an Indianapolis police officer named William Whitfield. Whitfield was one of the few black police officers in Indianapolis during the 1920's. In 1922, while on foot patrol, he found himself chasing a suspect through an Indianapolis alley.

"The man turned and ran from him, and he chased him," Bates said. "Before he got to 36th street, the guy pulled a gun and shot him.”

Records showed that Whitfield died at "Ward Sanitarium," a place Bates had never heard of. However, as a history buff, Bates had to know what this place was.

"I wanted to know what was Ward Sanitarium," Bates said. "This is where a black police officer died. What was it?”

Bates learned that Whitfield had been transported to City Hospital, where doctors believed his wounds were too severe and there was nothing they could do. However, a local African American surgeon named Joseph Ward believed he could save Whitfield. According to Bates, City Hospital did not allow Ward to operate there because of his skin color. So Ward took Whitfield to his own hospital, Ward Sanitarium. Bates began looking into Dr. Ward.

"As I dug down into his name and his background, it became very clear that he was not your run of the mill general practitioner," Ward said. "He was far from that.”

Who is Dr. Ward?

Joseph Ward was born in North Carolina in 1872. His mother had been a slave on a nearby plantation, and growing up as a first generation freedman was not an easy road. In his late teens, Ward moved to Indianapolis, where he eventually attended Indianapolis High School (now Shortridge High School) before pursuing medical school.

Eventually, Ward started his own medical practice in Indianapolis, where the black community was severely under served. According to Bates' research, there were only eight African American doctors in the city, while the black population was more nearly 170,000. Hospitals were still mainly segregated.

In World War I, Ward joined the army in the war effort. He became an officer, and Bates learned that he was also one of the first African Americans to lead an army field hospital.

Ward also became the first African American to lead a VA hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama from 1924-1936.

"He’s doing all of this at the height of the Jim Crow era in the United States, and he’s doing it all here in Indianapolis, much of it,” Bates said.

Ward eventually returned to Indianapolis, where he continued practicing medicine until the 1950's. He died in 1956.

A Name Forgotten

Despite these tremendous accomplishments, Bates realized many people did not know who Dr. Ward was. Bates was determined to change that.

Bates applied for a state historical marker at the spot of the former Ward Sanitarium, which was located at the corner of 21st and Boulevard on the near north side. It was torn down to make way for the construction of I-65.

Bates' application was approved, and with help from local organizations, he raised the money to have the marker installed.

"He was one that was quietly going through making a difference, making a change, and it (the marker) provides some recognition of that fact,” Bates said.

The marker is now in place, making sure the name Joseph Ward is remembered and that his accomplishments are no longer forgotten.

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