Colored Asylums

West Virginia Hospital for the Insane

In comparison with whites, few African-Americans were sent to insane asylums. Some asylums did not want to accept black patients at all, while others put black patients in separate wards. Some states created separate asylums entirely for the “colored insane,” apparently subscribing to influential alienist Thomas Kirkbride’s view that “colors and classes” should not be mixed in insane asylums.

The West Virginia Hospital for the Insane was fairly typical. Its board of directors recognized the need to provide care for “colored” patients, yet didn’t feel the asylum could accept them until it had room to separate the races. The asylum did begin to accept black patients sometime in the late 1880s, placing them in separate wards from whites. In 1893, the board of directors asked for $6,000 to build a colored hospital. Shamefully, this request was made even though the asylum only had 44 colored patients. In 1900, when the asylum housed 1,001 patients, only 68 of them were African-American.

Eastern Asylum for the Colored Insane, Goldsboro, NC

Mount Vernon Hospital for the Colored Insane, courtesy Reynolds Historical Library

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4 thoughts on “Colored Asylums

  1. Carla Joinson Post author

    I can appreciate your difficulty…I am not a genealogist and have never really searched for specific people in an asylum. If you are at a dead end, you may want to contact a genealogical society in your area for some tips or help in tracking down your ancestor. However, if you’re just starting a search, I can offer a couple of suggestions.

    Records on patients may or may not exist, and if they do exist, they may be protected under HIPPA–I’m not trying to discourage you, but just understand that you may hit a brick wall. I saw via a Google search that the old Mt. Vernon insane asylum is now “modern-day Searcy Hospital… currently has 408 extended-care beds and a 124-bed intermediate care unit for patients with severe mental illness.” This hospital may have the old records or know where they are. I suggest contacting the hospital, first.

    Sometimes records are sent to archives or historical societies. They may be stored at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, or at a local historical society near the old site. Either of these places may be able to point you in the right direction. Unfortunately, any records may have been destroyed entirely.

    I hope this helps a bit.

  2. Annette lesueur

    I am searching for information about my great grandmother who was a patient at mount Vernon asylum in mount Vernon alabama. Help???

  3. Carla Joinson

    I believe I’ve mentioned drapetomania in another post, but from what I gather, few alienists really subscribed to the theory. Blacks were in a peculiar position both before and after the Civil War. During slavery, insanity was probably managed through work and regimentation, just as “moral therapy” in asylums did. It was in a master’s best interest to provide some sort of help for a slave who might be capable of production. After freedom, it seemed as though the number of insane blacks rose substantially, since there was no plantation system to absorb the, as before. Some whites grabbed these statistics as proof that freedom for blacks was a bad idea..

  4. Mark p.s.2

    People of a darker skin color suffered from the mental illness of Drapetomania.
    “Drapetomania was a supposed mental illness described by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright in 1851 that caused black slaves to flee captivity. Today, drapetomania is considered an example of pseudoscience.” from wikipedia

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