HomeHealthMental HealthDocumentary explores history of asylum for Black patients

Documentary explores history of asylum for Black patients

PETERSBURG, Va. — When the American Psychiatric Association celebrated its 175th anniversary in San Francisco three years ago, it featured photos of two Virginia psychiatric institutions that contributed to its birth — what are now the Eastern State and Western State hospitals.

The exhibit also featured two Virginia psychiatrists who ran what were then called insane asylums – Dr. John Galt at Eastern in Williamsburg and Dr. Francis Stribling at Western in Staunton – and co-founder of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, the forerunner of the nationwide association.

Former Virginia Mental Health Commissioner King Davis, a prominent speaker, was struck by the absence of another psychiatric facility now known as Central State Hospital near Petersburg.

The hospital was founded in Richmond in 1870 as the world’s first psychiatric facility for black people in a state that had also established the first state hospital in the nation of Eastern in 1773.

“They had no idea,” Davis said, although the association awarded him the coveted Benjamin Rush Award for his work preserving and digitizing more than 800,000 records and 36,000 photographs documenting a century of the hospital’s past.

“You have to ask the question, why Virginia?” he said at a recent reception hosted by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

During the reception, the foundation saluted the archive project with the screening of a new documentary film “Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane” and guided tours through an exhibition of documents from the archives that have been on view since the beginning of February.

Written, directed and produced by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Shawn Utsey, the film was set to screen at the seventh annual Afrikana Film Festival.

Utsey, a professor of counseling psychology and chair of African American studies at VCU, began the documentary in 2019 as a study of a hospital based on racial segregation during the post-Civil War federal reconstruction and maintained as a segregated institution for black people until 1968.

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“I ran into King Davis and discovered all the work he had done,” he said. “It made my job a lot easier.”

Davis, now a professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and a resident of Hanover County, strongly advocates the importance of Central State in American history not only as a mental institution, but as a critical condition for Virginia’s reunion into the union in January 1870.

The month before, Major General Edward Canby issued an order as military governor of Virginia requiring the state to establish a “temporary insane asylum” for black people, both those released before the war and those emancipated by the victory of the Union.

Governor Gilbert Walker, appointed by Canby, accepted the demand and established the Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane in Howard’s Grove, a former Confederate hospital just outside Richmond in Henrico County that the Freedman’s Bureau had run as a general hospital for Black. people after the war.

“Why did it happen in Virginia and not elsewhere? Virginia had no choice,” Davis said in an interview.

The military order chose to mandate the establishment as a separate asylum for black people on the recommendation of Stribling, who vehemently opposed allowing racial integration in Western, as Galt had done on a limited basis for liberated black people since 1840. in Eastern. Galt had died in 1862, and Stribling became chairman of the Virginia Asylum Commission under the federal military government.

“Part of what (Canby) was looking for was a balance between the interests of the white population and the interests and needs of the black population,” Davis said.

Central operated in Howard’s Grove as an asylum for the mentally ill black people, including those brought over from the east, until the state opened a new hospital in 1885 on the former Mayfield Plantation outside Petersburg in Dinwiddie County.

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The new hospital, renamed Central State in 1894, functioned as the only psychiatric facility for black people in Virginia until the end of racial segregation after the passage of the Civil Rights Act 70 years later. (Located in Burkeville in Nottoway County, Piedmont Geriatric Hospital originally operated as a tuberculosis sanitarium for black people until it became a state hospital in 1967.)

For most of its history, the central state has operated with fewer financial resources and less support than other state institutions.

“Somehow, the facility was still characterized as ‘the black hospital,'” said Olivia Garland, who became Central State’s first black director in 1985 under Gerald Baliles administration.

Garland, a former prison warden and state administrator, recalls how shortly after her arrival three black employees “peeked” at her from the doorway, afraid to enter the warden’s office without being summoned.

“‘We just wanted to see that you really are who you are,'” she recalled saying.

When Dr. Arriving in 2001 as the state hospital’s first black medical director, Ronald Forbes said there was a certain separation between the largely black staff and the predominantly white administration housed in a building nicknamed “the White House”.

“I was sort of an ambassador between the departments and the White House,” Forbes said during an online town hall held in February by the psychiatric association in conjunction with the exhibit.

But, he said, the workers, most of them black residents of Petersburg and the surrounding area, made the hospital “poor in resources, but rich in care”.

“It was the community of Petersburg that came over the walls of Central State,” said Forbes, who retired in 2017 and is now vice chairman of the Friends of Central State, a nonprofit organization led by Davis.

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Utsey said the role of the workers he played in the documentary — including Florence Farley, a former Petersburg mayor and hospital psychologist who recently died — was transformative in “how they turned a bad situation into the enlightenment of humanity’s humanity.” the patients. “

Davis was first introduced to Central State history after moving from Massachusetts to Virginia in 1972 to become state director of mental health for 40 programs across Virginia that became community services.

He began documenting history after he received a call in 2008 from Charles Davis, then director of Central State, who feared the institution’s historical records would be lost.

“The records were in jeopardy in part because of decline,” said King Davis, who served as state commissioner for behavioral health services from 1990 to 1994 under Governor Doug Wilder, the first elected black governor in the country.

Davis arranged with Central State and the Library of Virginia to digitize them, using about $150,000 he raised from benefactors, including the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors and the University of Texas, where he was a professor of public policy research. .

The dilemma now is how and where to keep the physical documents. The collection is too large for the Library of Virginia, which has its own collection of Central State records, from 1874 to 1961.

There will also be no space in the new Central State hospital that is expected to open in 2025 on the Dinwiddie campus. The new hospital will have a Legacy Wall in the lobby of the Administration Building to honor the institution’s history.

Davis hopes to create a repository for the archives, possibly using one of the older hospital buildings slated to be demolished. “It would be great to have space at Central if we can get it done,” he said.

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