Documentary explores history of asylum for Black patients

"Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane" is a new documentary telling the history of the nation's first mental institution for Black patients.


Superintendent Public Printing - 45th Annual Report of Central State Hospital Petersburg, Virginia. (Photo: Davis Bottom via Wikimedia Commons).

By Michael Martz, Richmond Times-Dispatch

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

Front entrance to Western State Hospital in Staunton, VA. (Photo: Mennonite Church USA Archives via Wikimedia Commons).

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

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

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

Rebuilt 1773 Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds in Colonial Williamsburg; north elevation. (Photo: Ryan Lintelman via Wikimedia Commons).

“They had no idea,” said Davis, even though the association awarded him its coveted Benjamin Rush Award for his work to preserve and digitize 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 archives project by showing a new documentary film, “Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane” and giving tours of an exhibition of documents from the archives that has been on display since early February.

The film–written, directed and produced by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Shawn Utsey–was to be featured in the seventh annual Afrikana Film Festival.

Utsey, a professor of counseling psychology and chair of African American studies at VCU, began work on the documentary in 2019 as a study of a hospital founded on racial separation during federal Reconstruction after the Civil War and maintained as a segregated institution for Black people until 1968.

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

Davis, now professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and a resident of Hanover County, makes an emphatic case for the importance of Central State in American history, not just as a psychiatric institution but as a critical condition for Virginia’s readmission to the union in January 1870.

The month before, Maj. Gen. Edward Canby issued an order as military governor of Virginia that required the state to establish a “temporary lunatic asylum” for Black people, both those freed before the war and those emancipated through the Union victory.

Gov. Gilbert Walker, whom Canby had appointed, accepted the requirement and established the Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane at Howard’s Grove, a former Confederate hospital just outside of 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 anywhere else? Virginia didn’t have a choice,” Davis said in an interview.

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

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

Central operated at Howard’s Grove as an asylum for mentally ill Black people, including those transferred from Eastern, until the state opened a new hospital in 1885 on the former Mayfield Plantation outside of Petersburg in Dinwiddie County.

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

For most of its history, Central State labored 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 the first Black director of Central State in 1985 under Gov. Gerald Baliles.

Garland, a former state prison warden and administrator, recalled how soon after she arrived, three Black employees “peeped” at her from the doorway, afraid to enter the director’s office without being summoned.

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

When Dr. Ronald Forbes arrived in 2001 as the state hospital’s first Black medical director, he said some separation remained between the mostly Black staff and mostly white administration, housed in a building employees nicknamed “the White House.”

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

However, he said, the employees, most of them Black residents of Petersburg and the surrounding area, made the hospital “poor with resources but rich in caring.”

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

Utsey said the role of the employees he featured in the documentary–including Florence Farley, a former Petersburg mayor and psychologist at the hospital who recently died–was transformative in “how they turned a bad situation into the illumination of the humanity of the patients.”

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

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

“The records were in jeopardy in part because of deterioration,” said King Davis, who served as state commissioner for behavioral health services from 1990 to 1994 under Gov. 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 had 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 preserve the physical records. The collection is too large for the Library of Virginia, which has its own collection of Central State records, spanning 1874 to 1961.

There also won’t be room at the new Central State hospital that is expected to open on the Dinwiddie campus in 2025. The new hospital will feature a Legacy Wall in the lobby of its administration building to honor the institution’s history.

Davis hopes to create a repository for the archives, potentially using one of the older hospital buildings scheduled to be demolished. “Having space at Central would be fantastic if we can pull it off,” he said.