A Treasure Trove of Historical Data on the History of Mental Illness Among African Americans

The Central State Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane was established in 1868 in Petersburg, Virginia. It was the first facility in the United States established for African Americans who were “of unsound mind.” Prior to the opening of the facility, Virginia legislators concluded that slaves were immune from the risk of mental illness because they did not own property. Only white men who were engaged in the stresses of commerce and property ownership were thought to be vulnerable. However, as the civil war came to a close, legislators sought to maintain control by asserting that large numbers of African Americans would become mentally ill, particularly if they migrated away from the South. Physicians created unique diagnoses of African Americans who sought to escape from slavery. In the post-Civil War era up through the end of the civil rights era when the hospital was integrated, many African Americans were deemed insane and confined in the facility for simply not following the etiquette of Jim Crow. Among the reasons for admittance, according to official records, were refusing to step off a sidewalk to let a White man pass, talking back to a police officer, or getting into an argument with one’s boss.

csh-banjo

A local musician plays banjo for a large gathering of patients underneath a grove of trees outside of Central State Hospital, the world’s first African American psychiatric hospital in Petersburg, Virginia.

The records of Central State Hospital, as it was known after 1893, were stored in filing cabinets on site. Due to a narrow interpretation of the records retention law in Virginia, all of the documents, which contain a treasure trove of African American history, were scheduled to be destroyed.

davisprofilepicKing Davis, the Mike Hogg Professor in Community Affairs and the inaugural director of The Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, previously served as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Mental Health. He knew the historical value of the records. Professor Davis was able to prevent their destruction and in 2010 began the process of digitally scanning more than 800,000 records, photographs, letters, and other documents. Currently, Virginia legislators and mental health officials recognize the value of the historical records and encourage the research. Faculty at Virginia State and Howard University have participated in the project and serve on the advisory board.

Nurses in Training, CSH

The digitized records are stored on computer hard drives but Professor Davis is seeking funding to create an online digital archive that will be available to researchers and family members who had a relative that was a patient at the state hospital. The software to create the database is already in the works. “We need $300,000 to support the faculty and graduate students from the Information School who will develop the software, upload the documents and analyze,” Professor Davis told JBHE.

Dr. Davis said they have examined only the tip of the iceberg of the data on the admission of African Americans to the hospital. “Poverty was a key factor in admissions then and now and blacks were more likely to have been involuntarily admitted through the court system,” Professor Davis reports. “Until we go through thousands of records we cannot say what the exact trends we will find. This is part of the reason these records are so vitally important. Most have never been examined so there is so much that we do not know about.”

Another major concern is patient and family privacy. Professor Davis said, “We are guided first by the Virginia statute that says records are only made available after a 75-year period for research purposes. We also will institute a process that will only make certain records available online that are ‘public records.’ These would include annual reports, budgets, news articles, and related documents. We would have a second tier that would require families interested in the records to access them at the hospital after their affiliation has been assured.”

CSH Patients at Musical Event

Professor Davis says there is a tremendous interest among the public in learning about family members who might have spent time at Central State. “Each time that I have presented this topic at mental health conferences, a psychiatrist, social worker, psychologist, or politician has inquired whether I can confirm the name of one of their relatives who was hospitalized there.” The actor Blair Underwood recently revealed that his grandfather had been a patient in this hospital many years ago.

Dr. Davis says that when researchers have been able to analyze all the data, the information could lead to new discoveries about the state of mental illness in African Americans. “For example,” Dr. Davis told JBHE, “African Americans delay seeking help for mental health problems far longer than other populations. We consult our pastors for these problems and continue to believe that we’ll get better without formal mental health care. Part of the explanation for these findings is hidden in these historical records. There aren’t as many studies as you would imagine and there are very few that are unbiased. Research based on the archival data will yield information that can be useful to change the outcomes of future stories.”

All photos courtesy of LiberalArtsUT

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Comments (7)

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  1. Pat G says:

    It will be interesting to find out more about what was presumed to be mental illness and racism’s role in designating someone as mentally ill. To think that mental illness was initially “reserved” for whites who owned property is absurd at best. The stresses of slavery likely contributed to a substantial amount of mental illness as well as depression and anxiety among African-Americans (I think white folk were just crazy!). Finally, African-Americans need to stop relying on pastors for help with mental illness and pastors need to stop acting like they are qualified to address mental illness. The best advise they could give would be to recommend the person see a mental health professional.

    • Pamela Jones says:

      I totally agree with your comment. How could Africans not be depressed or mentally ill given the atrocities of enslavement? As far as whites go, if they have a soul, how could they not be disturbed by their acts or those they observed committing such brutality on another life? Finally, and most importantly, pastors need to stop pretending they are the be-all and know-all for people struggling emotionally. Great, great comment.

    • Morgan C says:

      Jonathan Metzl wrote a very insightful book about this very topic. The name of the book is The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease (Beacon Press, 2010). It is really eye opening about mental illness and marginalized/disenfranchised portions of society. I like how this has become a field of study. This opens up a better conversation concerning health care in America.

  2. Carolyn Grimstead says:

    Thank you for reporting this story. This research is so important to continuing accurate studies of mental illness among African Americans. In North Carolina, my ancestor was committed to an asylum for the “insane crime of shooting a white man.”

    Before ALL the records in this country are destroyed, a commitment to historical accuracy about African Americans is paramount. Thank you Professor Davis.

  3. David B. says:

    African Americans are particularly underserved when it comes to mental health. Any light that can be shed on the topic of our mental health is welcomed and needed.

  4. caribbean queen says:

    A must-read book dealing with mental illness and black people is Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by professor Joy DeGruy Leary of Portland State University in Oregon. EVERY black person should read this book, and others should read as well. This book is PROFOUND.

  5. Renee Escoffery-Torres, Ph.D. says:

    My father, Dr. Aubrey S. Escoffery, was among the groundbreaking psychologists who first integrated the staff at Central State. Prior to his time, the preponderance of the clinicians were physicians, but not necessarily psychiatrists, or even practitioners with backgrounds in mental health. At ninety years old, he still has many stories to tell about how critical it was to advocate for these patients, who were subject to numerous atrocities, from various forms of experimentation to forced sterilization. Hopefully, Dr. Davis will discover some of his notes, along with those of Dr. Florence Farley, and others who worked at Virginia State College in the 1950’s. Thank you Dr. Davis for this crucial and important contribution.

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