What It Was Like to Be a Black Patient in a Jim Crow Asylum


From Mother Jones: “In  March 1911, the segregated Crownsville asylum opened outside Baltimore, Maryland, admitting only Black patients. It was the first to house Black people in the state, but when they arrived, their main role wasn’t to get support—it was to build the asylum. The combination of ableism and sanism—harmful beliefs about the nature and treatment of ‘mental illness’—with anti-Black racism in the Jim Crow South all but ensured that Black patients were treated worse than white ones held in other asylums throughout the state.

In Madness, journalist Antonia Hylton details the institution’s treatment of Black patients—some placed there due to being orphans, seeking better treatment at work, or, in the case of one British man, because some white people found his accent to be suspect.

. . . Even within Maryland’s Black communities, families had to fight to bring attention to how Black patients were treated in Crownsville, as you touch on in your book, including with the NAACP. What does that tell us about the stigma around ‘mental illness,’ then and now?

‘When you look at organizations like the NAACP, and some of these other professional groups that were fighting for the advancement of civil rights of Black communities, at times they felt a pressure to present—in a word that’s very commonly used in the Black community—in a respectable way. But there are these wonderful people who come along the way, including Black reporters, and a couple of doctors and lawyers who find their way inside the asylum and try to publish and publicize what they find. Without those few people, in the bigger picture, you see a society that was comfortable discarding people.

I think a lot of families are still allowing loved ones who are suffering to slowly disappear, even if it’s not that they’re disappearing in massive asylums. One of the reasons I wrote about my family and my own journey, alongside the reporting and the research and the space, is because I felt like I had this obligation to reckon with what some of these forces had done [to] me and my loved ones, and then to resurrect my dad’s cousin Maynard: I am not gonna let you be in the shadows anymore. I’m not gonna let you retreat to a footnote of our family history. You’re gonna be out front.'”

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  1. This looks like a vital contribution to educating us about the appalling treatment of black patients – I know my own story, bad as it is, still comes from a place of white privilege. I look forward to reading your book, although with slight trepidation…….

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