In a 1903 newspaper column, Dr. William Drewry wrote that Blacks no longer living under the “strict but kind discipline” of slave owners who had provided them with an “out-door life in a pure, health-giving atmosphere” were unable to cope with the demands of freedom.
Incredibly, this illogical belief was shared amongst several other prominent physicians of the time including Dr. Samuel Cartwright who, in 1851, fabricated the conjectural mental illness of Draptomenia, a disease hypothesized to cause Black slaves to flee captivity.
To care for these supposedly “insane” African Americans, the state of Virginia opened the Central Lunatic Asylum in 1870, which later became the Central State Hospital. Designated as the official “reception and treatment facility for colored persons of unsound mind,” the Central Lunatic Asylum is believed to be the first psychiatric hospital in the United States opened solely for Blacks.
The hospital advertised its treatments as humane, claiming their methods emphasized the value of work ethic and the benefits of recreation. However, a collection of documents recovered from the hospital archives in 2009 revealed that many patients were forced to endure torturous procedures such as lobotomies, isolation, mechanical restraints, and the administering of hypnotics.
These documents also revealed that not everyone who was admitted was sick: patients included elderly people without better options, and perfectly healthy people sent to the hospital by the police.
Initially, the hospital was home to just 373 patients, but by 1950, the average inpatient population at Central State reached almost 5,000 people. Overcrowding in the ward buildings quickly became a major problem; conditions were so cramped that many patients slept on the floor.
As a result of the congestion, many changes were made to the hospital campus in the 1960s. Additional tracts of land were purchased and several new buildings were constructed, creating more comfortable living space for patients. This new construction also included a special building to house the criminally insane apart from the rest of the hospital population.
Currently, Central State Hospital still operates as a state-run institution, but many of the original buildings are no longer in use. The building once used to house “delinquent and feebled-minded” females especially has fallen prey to natural deterioration. Since its abandonment nearly 40 years ago, overgrowth has consumed the structure; the central courtyard bears more resemblance to that of a jungle than the well-kept lawn it used to be. Overrun by decay, the asylum is far beyond restoration or usage.
Within the last 30 years, the medical practices, clientele, and appearance of Central State Hospital have changed drastically; the hospital now accepts patients regardless of race or national origin, and the campus features state of the art facilities designed to better serve its patients. Standing in stark contrast to these new facilities, the decomposing structures of the original campus buildings serve as a reminder of just how far society has come in treating the most vulnerable members of the public.
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