Assessing how far we’ve come in our treatment of persons with mental illness demands that we understand where we’ve been. In this episode of Into the Fold, Dr. Patricia Galloway discusses the monumental effort to digitally preserve patient records from the segregation-era Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane — now Central State Hospital — in Petersburg, Virginia. It was the first mental hospital for newly freed slaves in the United States of America. Galloway, a key collaborator on the project which is headed by former Hogg Foundation executive director Dr. King Davis, discusses the ongoing work to transform this trove of records into a publically accessible archive, the challenges of long term preservation, the key stakeholders in the project, and how the archive is deepening our understanding of the evolution of treatment standards for persons with serious mental illness. Galloway is Professor of Digital Archiving and Archival Enterprise in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin. ​

One of the most important take-aways from the interview is that, despite what we might assume about day-to-day life for patients at an “asylum for colored insane,” there is evidence that their treatment did not sharply diverge from what was the standard for the time (for better or for worse). Here’s Galloway:

….[T]his particular hospital was built at the instance of the Freedman’s Bureau, [and] it was meant to provide care for people. Of course, we may not think that the kind of care that was provided at that time was the best thing, but then everyone was getting that kind of care at that time. Of course, medical thinking has moved on, but what’s remarkable is that there are late 19th century/early 20th century pictures, photographs, that actually indicate that many of the patients were free to be outside on the grounds — I don’t know how often or how frequently — but there certainly are photographs of them doing things, walking around, not only working, for example, to raise vegetables, but also having a baseball game.

That’s just scratching the surface. As this page about the project explains, these irreplaceable historical materials, which include admission and treatment records, vintage psychiatry books, photographs, correspondence, and reports going back to the 1870s, are in jeopardy as a result of less than optimal storage conditions over the decades. Not only is this preservation project intrinsically worthwhile, but it also meets an urgent need.

There’s a little something for everyone: history buffs, people interested in mental health, and those like myself who are curious about what such an archive reveals about life at the intersection of race, psychiatric medicine, and prevailing social conditions in the turn-of-the-century U.S. South.

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