Documentary explores the history of asylum for black patients

By Michael Martz, Richmond Times-Dispatch

PETERSBURG, Virginia (AFP) – When the American Psychiatric Association celebrated its 175th anniversary three years ago in San Francisco, two images surfaced. Virginia The mental institutions which contributed to its birth – what are now Eastern State Hospitals and Western State Hospitals.

Also participating in the exhibition were two Virginia psychiatrists who led what were then called insane asylums – Dr. John Galt at Eastern in Williamsburg and Dr. Frances Strebling at Western in Staunton – and co-founders of the American Institutions Medical Supervisors Association for the Insane, the forerunner of the National Society.

Former Virginia Commissioner of Mental Health King Davis, a prominent speaker, was shocked by the absence of another state mental institution, now known as Central State Hospital near Petersburg.

The hospital in Richmond was founded in 1870 as the world’s first mental institution for blacks in a state that also established the first state psychiatric hospital in the Eastern nation in 1773.

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“They had no idea,” Davis said, although the association awarded him the coveted Benjamin Rush Award for his work in 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 reception recently hosted by the Foundation of the American Psychiatric Association at its headquarters in Washington, D.C

During the reception, the Foundation welcomed the Archives Project by screening a new documentary film “Central Insane Asylum for the Colored Maniac” and organizing tours of the Gallery of Documents from the Archives that have been on display since early February.

The film – written, directed and produced by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Sean Otse – was to be shown at the seventh annual Africana Film Festival.

Otse, professor of counseling psychology and chair of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, began work on the documentary in 2019 as a study of a hospital founded on racial segregation during post-Civil War Federal Reconstruction and continuing as a segregated institution for blacks until 1968.

“I met King Davis and found out all the work he did,” he said. “It made my job a lot easier.”

Davis, who is now Professor Emeritus at University Texas An Austin and resident of Hanover County, he makes an emphatic case for the central state’s importance in American history, not only as a psychiatric institution but as a critical condition for Virginia’s readmission to the Union in January 1870.

The previous month, Major General Edward Canby had issued an order as military governor of Virginia requiring the state to create a “temporary asylum for the insane” for blacks, both freed before the war and those emancipated through Union victory.

Governor Gilbert Walker, appointed by Canby, acceded to the demand and established the Central Asylum for the Colored Insane at Howards Grove, a former Confederate hospital outside of Richmond in Henrico County that Friedman’s office ran as Black’s general hospital. people after the war.

“Why did it happen in Virginia and not anywhere else? Davis said in an interview.

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

“Part of what[Canby]sought was to balance the interests of the white population with the interests and needs of the black population,” Davis said.

Central at Howards Grove served as a haven for black people with mental illness, including those who had been transported from Eastern, until the state opened a new hospital in 1885 on the former Mayfield farm outside Petersburg in Dinwiddy County.

The new hospital, renamed Central State in 1894, operated as the only mental institution for blacks in Virginia until the end of segregation after the Civil Rights Act was passed 70 years later. (The Piedmont Geriatric Hospital, based in Burkeville in Nottway County, originally operated as a tuberculosis sanatorium for blacks until it became a state hospital in 1967.)

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

Somehow the facility was still described as ‘Black Hospital,’ said Olivia Garland, who became Central State’s first black female administrator in 1985 under Governor Gerald Ballis.

Garland, a warden and former state prison director, recalls how shortly after arriving, three black employees “looked at” at her from the entrance, terrified to enter the principal’s office without being called.

I remembered them saying, “We just wanted to see what you really are.”

When Dr. Ronald Forbes arrived in 2001 as the state hospital’s first black medical director, he said that some separation still existed between the mostly black staff and the mostly white management, residing in a building called the “White House”.

“I was like an ambassador between the wings and the White House,” Forbes said during an online town hall session held by the Psychiatric Association in February in conjunction with the exhibition.

However, he said the staff, mostly black residents of Petersburg and the surrounding area, made the hospital “resource-poor but care-rich”.

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

Otse said the role of the staff he gave in the documentary — including Florence Farley, the former mayor of Petersburg and a hospital psychiatrist who recently died — was transformative in “how to turn a bad situation into human illumination for patients.”

Davis had first encountered Central State history after moving from Massachusetts He moved to Virginia in 1972 to become the state’s director of mental health for 40 programs across Virginia that became community service boards.

He set out to document the history after receiving a call in 2008 from Charles Davis, the then director of Central State, who was concerned that the institution’s historical records were at risk of being lost.

“Records were at risk in part because of deterioration,” said King Davis, who served as the state’s Commissioner for Behavioral Health Services from 1990 to 1994 under Governor Doug Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor.

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

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

There will also be no place in the new Central State Hospital, which is expected to open on the Dinwiddie campus in 2025. The new hospital will feature an old wall in the lobby of its administration building to honor the institution’s history.

Davis hopes to create an archive repository, likely to use one of the old hospital buildings slated for demolition. “Having a space in Central would be great if we could make that happen,” he said.

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