Central State Psychiatric Hospital: Pioneering Mental Health Care for Blacks in Petersburg

PETERSBURG, Virginia (WRIC) – Virginia’s mental health system is the oldest in the United States, established in 1770 by British Governor Francis Fauquier, who openly wondered why, unlike his motherland, the colony he led allowed the mentally ill to roam the streets. He founded what would become the Eastern and Western State Mental Hospitals.

Until the late 1960s, neither admitted black people.

“Initially, Africans were seen as lacking the capacity for reason and if they did not have the capacity for reason, they could not lose it. Therefore, black people were considered immune to mental illness issues, ”said King Davis, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The people estimated to have the most mental illness in Virginia were wealthy white males. Due to the assumption that the stress of trying to make a living and making a profit was such that a person was likely to lose their mental bearings. The only people likely to have lost their mental bearings were affluent white men.

The idea that owning and managing a property could be more stressful than being a property was a lost irony for early Americans. And their beliefs informed decisions about mental health treatment. Virginia only opened up its mental health system to blacks after the Civil War, anticipating a wave of mental illness among freed slaves, embarrassed by the prospect of fending for themselves.

The hospital that would become the Central State began in 1868 as the Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane with a campus in Church Hill. The site was abandoned after a land dispute and moved in 1885 to Petersburg, whose mayor made an agreement for a new, larger campus.

Like all public institutions in the United States at the time, the central state was separate. And while “separate but equal” has remained the norm, Davis maintains that this was not the dark, depressing place one could assume. In fact, Davis is a strong advocate for a positive and nurturing environment at Central State during this time.

“Central State Hospital has had the small side of the stick, from a budget perspective. Whether or not it had an impact on the services… it was actually an extraordinarily warm and caring environment, ”explained Davis. “It didn’t mean that people were receiving the most exceptional service, but they were receiving the most exceptional care. “

He noted that ward staff, nurses, and ward technicians were all black, and pastors and church members visited him regularly. As is the nearby Virginia State University group of Ettrick.

The State Central Hospital has hosted many famous artists for the enjoyment of patients, including Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and, here, Louis Armstrong. (Photo credit: James W. Burke)

And from all over the country came the best black artists from America.

“This happened because of the proximity of Virginia State University to Central State,” Davis said. “So every time Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne came to the state of Virginia, they also came to central state and they performed.”

In addition to its cultural value, Central State is an incredible repository of historical documents. Over the past few years, Davis has digitized some 800,000 documents. The breadth and depth of central state archives can be unmatched.

“They kept every piece of paper, every file, every bill of sale,” he said.

There is also a wealth of meticulously detailed medical records. Davis, who also served as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Mental Health during Douglas Wilder’s administration, believes they are unprecedented for such a facility.

“We are able to tell you the main diagnoses of everyone who has walked in here – every person. We have 14 characteristics on each person admitted, ”he said.

The Davis scholarship has so far been supported by the University of Texas and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which have donated $ 800,000 to digitize central state records. Unfortunately, that is where his work is today.

“To date, we have not received any resources from Virginia. No Virginia Foundations. No Virginia company. No Virginia organization whatsoever, ”he explained.

With more money, Davis imagines using central state records to compare how doctors diagnose patients then versus now, and also as a resource for families in Virginia who had loved ones admitted as patients. , connecting the past to the present.

Davis said, “Under Virginia law loved ones can have access to data – information. We run genealogy workshops statewide so that we can share information with family members about their loved ones who were here.

The history of the Central State, like much of our history, is an epic tapestry, weaving coarse threads of ignorance and oppression with finer, silkier strands of resilience, hope, love and care.

In Davis’ words, “I say gorgeous! Because the atmosphere that prevailed here was one of people who care about the people in their community. They cared about them personally. They cared about them professionally.

The original kitchen was built in the late 1800s and many patients have worked there over the years. Dr. William Francis Drewry, superintendent from 1896 to 1924, opposed “placing people in cells or strait-jackets” and instead emphasized “healthy eating, recreation, therapy with work and a warm, family atmosphere ”.

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