Black History: Special Delivery!!
The Central State Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane opened its doors in 1868 to provide mental health treatment for African Americans. The quality of care and conditions was often substandard. Like many institutions at that time, blacks receiving care were often segregated and subjected to substandard conditions. The 1866 Civil Rights act actually required that state-owned mental hospitals accept black patients. Despite the law, mental hospitals refused to do so. Located in Petersburg, Virginia, it was the first facility to care for black people who were thought to be experiencing mental health challenges. However, the criteria for determining if a black patient had a mental disorder was often racist and inequitable. Prior to the facility being opened, politicians and medical professionals in the state of Virginia viewed the enslaved as being at no risk for mental health challenges because they were not property owners. Thus, continuing to advance the stereotype of the inhumanity of black people. At the time, the prevailing sentiment was that only white landowners who were engaged in commerce would be at risk for mental health issues.
At the close of the civil war, landowners and legislators, seeking to maintain control of the formerly enslaved began to assert that African Americans suffered a mental illness; especially if they were seeking to flee the South. Doctors created fictitious diagnoses to label those who chose to migrate away from the south as deviant and mentally deficient. The characterization of freedom as the cause of a patient’s mental health diagnosis was intended to vilify emancipation and subjugate the formerly enslaved. Blacks could be committed to the asylum for infractions such as not following oppressive Jim Crow laws. Infractions such as not stepping off the sidewalk to allow a white person to pass, arguing with a white supervisor, or talking back to a white law enforcement officer were incidents that could result in a black person being committed to the asylum. Poverty was also a significant factor in admissions to the asylum.
In recent years, over 800,000 patient records were discovered from the Central State Assylum, as well as pictures, letters, and various other documents. Central State patient records were stored in onsite and were set to be destroyed until an astute professor, Dr.King Davis from the University of Texas recognized the value of the medical records and sought to preserve them and undertake the tedious process of digitizing the records. Davis was previously a commissioner for the Virginia Department of Mental Health. The institution remained segregated until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is still in operation today.