A Treasure Trove of Historical Data on the History of Mental Illness Among African Americans
Filed in Features on February 6, 2014
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.
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.
King 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.
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.”
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