Central State Mental Hospital: Pioneering Black mental health care in Petersburg

Black History Month

PETERSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia’s mental health system is America’s oldest, established in 1770 by British Governor Francis Fauquier, who wondered openly why, unlike his mother country, the colony he ruled allowed the mentally ill to wander the streets. He founded what would become the Eastern and Western State Mental Hospitals.

Until the late 1960s, neither admitted Black people.

“Initially, African people were considered not to have a capacity for reason and if they didn’t have a capacity for reason—they could not lose it. Therefore, Blacks were considered to be immune from problems of mental illness,” said King Davis, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The persons who were believed to suffer most from mental illness in Virginia were white men of wealth. Because of 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 well-off white males.”   

The idea that having and managing property might be more stressful than being property was an irony lost on early Americans. And their beliefs informed decisions about mental health treatment. Virginia only opened its mental health system to Black people after the Civil War, anticipating a rush of mental illness among freed slaves addled by the prospect of fending for themselves.

The hospital that would become 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 struck a deal for a new, larger campus.

Like all public institutions in the U.S. at the time, Central State was segregated. And while “separate but equal” remained the standard, Davis maintains it was not the grim and depressing place one might assume. In fact, Davis makes a vigorous case for a positive and nurturing environment at Central State in those days.

“Central State Hospital got the short end of the stick, budgetarily. Whether or not that made impact on services…this was in fact, an extraordinarily warm, caring environment,” explained Davis. “It didn’t mean that people received the most outstanding service – but they received the most outstanding care.”

He noted that the ward staff, nurses, and ward technicians were all Black and that pastors and church members visited regularly. So did Virginia State University’s band from nearby Ettrick.

Central State Hospital was host to numerous famous performers for patient’s enjoyment, including Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and pictured here, Louis Armstrong. (Photo credit: James W. Burke)

And from across the nation came America’s top black entertainers.

“It happened because of the proximity of Virginia State University and Central State,” Davis said. “So whenever Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne came to Virginia State, they came to Central State as well and they performed.”

In addition to its cultural value, Central State is an amazing repository of historic records. Over the last several years, Davis has digitized some 800,000 documents. The breadth and depth of Central State archives may be unmatched.

“They kept every scrap of paper, every record, every bill of sale,” he said.

There’s also a trove 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 a facility of its type.

“We are able to tell you the major diagnoses of everybody who entered here – every person. We have 14 characteristics on every person who was admitted,” he said.

Davis’ scholarship has been supported so far by the University of Texas and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which donated $800,000 to digitize Central State documents. Unfortunately, that’s where his work stands today.

“To date, we have not received any resources from Virginia. No Virginia foundations. No Virginia corporations. No Virginia organizations whatsoever,” he explained.

With more money, Davis imagines using Central State records to compare how doctors diagnosed patients at that time compared to now, and also as a resource for Virginia families who had loved ones admitted as patients, connecting the past to the present.

Said Davis, “Under Virginia law, relatives can have access to the data – the information. We do genealogical workshops all over the state so that we can share with family members information about their relatives who were here.”

The story of 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 magnificent! Because the atmosphere that was here was of people who care for 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 had jobs working there over the years. Dr. William Francis Drewry, superintendent from 1896 to 1924, opposed “the placing of persons in cells or strait jackets” and instead placed emphasis on “healthy food, recreation, work therapy and a friendly homelike atmosphere.”

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