Eli Hill Case Study III: The Presence/Absence of African Americans in the Southern Asylum
Eli Hill Case Study III: The Presence/Absence of African Americans in the Southern Asylum

Eli Hill Case Study III: The Presence/Absence of African Americans in the Southern Asylum

Cases from the Asylum Archive

Eli Hill (1832-1877)

Robert C. Allen

The Presence/Absence of African Americans in the Southern Asylum

Participants in the Spring 2020 iteration of the seminar were particularly interested in the relationship between race and the asylum in North Carolina.  The admissions ledger contains no column for race.  As was almost universally the case in the South in the 19th and most of the 20th century, “whiteness” was an unmarked racial category, with non-whiteness indicated by “colored,” “negro,” or “mulatto.”  The first indication of the admission of a non-white patient in the hospital comes in the spring of 1865: admission #503 on April 18 is noted as “Isaac (African)”.  The supposed cause of his insanity is listed simply as “the War.”  Fourteen other records between April 1865 and August 1866 are noted by a first name and “(African)”.  Between December 1866 and March 1879, there are first and last name records for “colored” admissions.  In addition to those noted in the admissions ledger, we found a number who show up in the 1870 and 1880 census enumerations for the hospital, suggesting that, for some reason, not all African American patients were included in the admissions ledger.  In all, we identified 47 African Americans who were a part of the patient population between April 1856 and the spring of 1880.  With the opening of an insane asylum specifically for African Americans in Goldsboro, N.C., in 1880, African American admissions at Dix ceased until the de-segregation of public facilities in the 1960s.

The presence/absence of African Americans at Dix raised a host of initial questions for us: What prompted the admission of “Isaac” as the first (known) African American patient?  Under whose auspices were African Americans admitted between 1865 and 1879?  Were African American patients housed in separate quarters?  Were African Americans diagnosed and treated differently than white patients?   But what we most wanted to know was: who were these 47 individuals?  Or, rather, what could be known about them beyond what had been recorded in the admissions ledger?

In asking this question we were confronting the formidable challenge of African American genealogy, particularly in the South, and particularly during the Reconstruction period over the first decade following the end of the Civil War in May 1865.  Assuming that the preponderance of them were former slaves (rather than what were called free persons of color before the Civil War), we knew that we were highly unlikely to identify them in surviving records from the Antebellum period.  Most slaves did not have surnames—indeed one of the first acts of personal agency for many freed slaves was to choose a surname for themselves and their children.  We assumed that the African Americans admitted before August 1866 (ie: those listed simply by first name and (African)) were former slaves.  The roughly 30 African Americans admitted after that point might be enumerated in the 1870 census (the first to include former slaves), but historians have come to view the 1870 census as problematic, particularly in its undercounting of African American by as much as 20%.  Slaves could not legally marry.  After the war marital relationships in North Carolina could be given official status through cohabitation bonds.  What survives of these county-level records are held by the State Archives of North Carolina.   Indeed, as Heather Williams has documented (Help Me Find My People: The African-American Search for Family Lost in Slavery [Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2012]), family units under slavery were routinely subject to violent dissolution and separation.  For years after the war, family members ran “information wanted” newspaper ads trying to locate husbands, wives, and children who had been violently separated from them, in some cases more than a decade before.  But in many cases such ads had to be placed and read by others: most slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write.

The question of literacy affects our ability to consistently identify an individual in public records by the spelling of their name.  In the case of the census, for example, if a respondent could not spell their name, the enumerator recorded what they heard, imposing whatever spelling conventions they might have associated with a given name.  This, of course, applies not only to illiterate former slaves, but to many people in the South and those from immigrant communities elsewhere (and not just in the 19th century but well beyond) who relied upon the sound of a name rather than its spelling in every day discourse.  Former slaves, particularly older ones, might not have known (because they had never been told) their date of birth.  Furthermore, a census enumeration locates individuals and families only on the day and in the place of the enumeration itself; it says nothing about where they might have lived before that day or where they might have moved subsequent to it.  The war produced massive dislocations in the South for African Americans and poor whites.  And we could go on and on. . . .

Intrepid genealogists and historians—academic and non-academic alike—have worked hard to identify and expand available resources for African-American family history and genealogy.  As a part of the CHW’s two-year public history/humanities initiative in conjunction with the repurposing of Rocky Mount Mills in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, African American genealogist Bernetiae Reed—herself a descendant of slaves—worked with CHW staffers Nicole Coscolluela and Sarah Almond to produce a slave genealogy research guide and to organize a slave genealogy workshop in June 2019.  The State Library of North Carolina has also published a guide to researching African American genealogy, with an emphasis on state and county records in North Carolina.

Museums, archives, and federal agencies are also working to increase accessibility of records that document African American lives, particularly during the Reconstruction period (1865-78).  One of the largest and most important collection of Federal records from this time are those of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Established in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands was intended to help prepare some four million former slaves to build new lives for themselves and their families.  Although under-funded and politically opposed both by national politicians and by many whites in the Southern states in which the bureau’s work was focused, between 1865 and 1872, it provided food and clothing, established temporary hospitals, helped to settle former slaves on abandoned properties, and assisted with labor contracts, marriages, and legal matters.  It also helped to protect vulnerable families from intimidation and violence from embittered whites.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is collaborating with the Smithsonian Institution to transcribe and digitize some 1.5 million pages of Freedmen’s Bureau records.  One dimension of the project is a crowdsourcing initiative through the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center that allows volunteers from around the world to transcribe handwritten bureau records and thus expedite the process of creating a searchable database.

Of course, spring semester 2020 was torn apart by the spread of the corona virus.  A long-planned campus-wide symposium on the use of asylum records in research, teaching, and professional training scheduled for March 27, 2020 had to be cancelled, and with it an opportunity for the seminar to share their work on the project.  The normal week-long spring break was extended for another week, and when classes resumed the week of March 23, all in-person class meetings were suspended and courses moved to an online environment.  The four remaining seminar participants–Lis Bernhardt (Nursing), Savannah Foreman (English), and Anna Hamilton (American Studies), teaching assistant Hannah Evans (Folklore) and I regrouped for a final month of “virtual” work and conversation together, exploring ways the project might be adapted for use in curricula across a range of disciplines.  We called our work “Reconstruction Project.” As the project website explains, the term “does double duty, referring at once to the Reconstruction era, the period of rebuilding and attempted integration of union and southern states post-Civil War, as well as the challenge of piecing together fractured records of what life might have been like for the African Americans at the hospital, despite scant documentation.”  Early on we discussed the challenges the project represented:  “This is quite possibly the most difficult data subset of the more than 7,000 patient records to explore and (re)humanize. We have chosen this grouping deliberately, to elevate the stories of those whose lives have been erased and suppressed in the historical record, and to shed light on the problem of reading human lives as ‘data.’”  In retrospect this decision reflected a consensus that this aspect of the hospital’s history demanded to be told as well as a sense of urgency to do so.

Although we were not able to meet all the goals we had set for ourselves by the end of the semester, the seminar did create a unique and invaluable resource that, we hope, will catalyze further research and learning for years to come: an inventory of all known African Americans to have been inmates at Dix Hospital from its opening in 1856 to its eventual integration in the 1960s.  As the project website put it: “Above all, this site is about the data—the lack of data, the porousness of the data, the hazy origins and endings for its patients—which we have published here. Sharing these stories of black patients at Dix beckons us inside the asylum walls, offering insights into the treatment of African American mental health in the South at a precarious period in the nation’s history. We leave this for readers and future scholars to pick up where we left off.”

The “precarious period in the nation’s history” referred to when this text was drafted in late April was that of the aftermath of Civil War.  The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, connected that historical period of systemic racial violence and social injustice with the present.  Protests around the world demanded that the names of those whose lives were taken by institutional racism not just be spoken but recited, recovered from the official record, memorialized through action.  For the first time, we can speak the names of others whose lives call out to be recovered and remembered, starting with “Isaac.”

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