Race in the Asylum: the Case of Eli Hill, Part II
Race in the Asylum: the Case of Eli Hill, Part II

Race in the Asylum: the Case of Eli Hill, Part II

Part II: Reconstruction

Read the beginning of Eli’s story here.

The War after the War

Eli Hill was among the 179,000 African Americans who served in the U.S. Colored Troops. Another 19,000 served in the U.S. Navy. Some 40,000 African American soldiers and sailors died during the war, 30,000 of them from infection and disease. Some 5000 African Americans from North Carolina enlisted. Hill was among the 4,100 who survived.   

In his book, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014), Richard Reid attempted to follow their lives through 1890. Of those he could locate, most stayed in North Carolina, and over half of them returned to the counties of the coastal plain, such as Onslow County, where Eli Hill was from. However, the record of Eli Hill’s service continues for another twenty-two months after the “end” of the war in the spring of 1865.  

One of the exceptions to the rapid demobilization of Union troops at the end of the war was the need for army units to serve a constabulary function in the states of the defeated South, ensure that Federal policy was carried out, and protect freed slaves and free persons of color. Reid estimates that one-third of all occupying troops were African American, and in some states the ratio was higher: of 14,000 Federal troops in South Carolina in the immediate post-war period, some 11,000 were black. (Reid, p. 255). Among those USCT regiments that continued to serve in the South for several years after the end of the war was Eli’s unit: the 37th Regiment.

Black and white image of Eli Hill's muster-out card in 1867.
Eli’s muster-out card

These Black troops were placed in an invidious position. Some white southerners were enraged by the very sight of a Black man in uniform carrying a weapon. Others refused to acknowledge his authority to enforce the law. Especially in cities, Hill and his comrades quickly became, as Reid puts it, “symbols of Confederate defeat.” In Wilmington, where Eli was posted in the fall of 1865, there were five recorded instances of violence against Black soldiers in the first year after the war. By November there were rumors of a Black insurrection against local whites in North Carolina cities. This explains Hill’s deployment to Fort Hatteras in 1866: army commanders feared increased racial violence in urban areas, and moving Black troops to much more lightly populated areas along the coast reduced their social visibility.

On February 11, 1867, the unit was officially demobilized in Raleigh, and after two and a half years, the war was over for Eli.

However, using another extraordinary historical resource we have access to at UNC, we know that Eli was not among those who returned to Onslow County. He remained in Raleigh. Thanks to an agreement struck several years ago between Wilson Library and Ancestry.com’s subsidiary, Newspapers.com, more than 4 million pages of historical North Carolina newspapers have been digitized and are available through the Library’s website.

Searching for Eli Hill in Raleigh newspapers from 1867 turns up a small notice from the Mayor’s Court from May 21, 1867: “Eli Hill, colored, charged with assaulting Ann Williams, colored, was returned to the county court.” Southern newspapers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century devoted regular coverage to what was variously called the Magistrate’s Court, Recorder’s Court, or, in this case, the Mayor’s Court. Here misdemeanor-level cases were heard and most decided by the official acting as judge. These cases might include theft, violation of various public ordinances, affray, drunk and disorderly, etc. Sentences included fines, brief jail terms, and, especially for African American men, working on the “chain gang.”

Black and white image of a newspaper article addressing Eli Hill's assault of Ann Williams.

It is worth noting here that the idea of a vociferously partisan press is not a new one: The Sentinel was owned and edited by Josiah Turner, a Confederate veteran and Democratic politician. He used his newspaper as a loudspeaker to oppose Republican Governor William Holden, who had Turner arrested for aiding the Ku Klux Klan. He is regarded as being instrumental in the impeachment of Holden in 1871.

The journalistic convention of identifying the race of the accused—if that race was other than white–in all levels of criminal trials in the South is taking root here and would persist for a century. It had several effects. One was to associate African Americans with criminality of all kinds, particularly at the level likely to be adjudicated by a magistrate or mayor. Alleged crime where both perpetrator and victim were “colored” could be dismissed as unimportant and to be expected. It confirmed comic tropes developed and globally circulated by white performers in minstrel shows from the 1840s. However, accusation of any type of physical crime by African Americans upon white women was incendiary—an excuse for vigilante “justice” and lynching. The fact that Eli’s case involved a Black man alleged to have assaulted a Black female explains why it occupies but a single sentence in a single newspaper, as well as why the resolution of the case is left unreported. Deeper research into county court records might shed light on the relationship between Eli and Ann and the circumstances that led to his arrest.

At this point, Eli disappears from available records for three years. The next event in Eli’s life about which we have evidence is, of course, his admission to Dix on January 27, 1870, as patient #882.

Reconstruction and the Construction of Race

Having recovered a basic biography for Eli Hill prior to his admission to Dix in 1870, I wanted to place this event within the context of the asylum movement in the South and its relationship to race, particularly during Reconstruction in North Carolina. Another serendipitous discovery in the digital newspaper archives launched this process.

Image of Dorothea Dix, a white woman with dark hair in a bun.
Dorothea Dix

Ten days prior to Eli’s admission the North Carolina House of Representatives received a special guest: Dorothea Dix—the great advocate for public asylums, for whom the North Carolina asylum was eventually named. Governor William Holden showed her to a special seat of honor on the floor of the House and welcomed her on behalf of its members.

Dix then visited the asylum as a guest of its superintendent, Dr. Eugene Grissom, and remained in Raleigh for several weeks, raising the possibility, I thought, that she might have requested to see the conditions under which African American patients were kept. Might Dorothea Dix and Eli Hill have crossed paths?     

Dorothea Dix was without doubt one of the most dedicated, persistent, and effective social activists of the first half of the nineteenth century in America. In the 1840s, she traveled tens of thousands of miles exposing and documenting the horrible conditions under which the insane were kept in jails, alms houses, and, in some cases, by family members. She befriended politicians in dozens of states advocating for the creation of state-funded asylums administered by superintendents who were champions of the “moral treatment” philosophy.

The story of Dix’s role in the establishment and state funding of a public insane asylum for North Carolina in 1848 has become foundational in nearly every narrative of the hospital’s history. “She arrived in North Carolina in 1848, documented the poor treatment of thousands of mentally ill men, women, and children, and successfully lobbied the legislature to create the state’s first mental health hospital.” (Dix Park Master Plan) One of the specific steps proposed in the master plan for the transformation of the hospital site into a “destination” park is to memorialize Dix and her legacy in North Carolina.

However, for a century after her death in 1887, scholarship on Dix’s beliefs, values, and politics remained remarkably thin, given Dix’s long life of accomplishment and attendant veneration. Her biographer, David Gollaher, called her “famous yet unknown.” His 1995 work (David Gollaher, Voices for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix [New York: Free Press, 1995]) was the first to be based on the more than 10,000 Dix-related items in Harvard’s Houghton Library. He uncovered what he called a glaring blind spot in her “moral vision” that would shape the asylum movement and, through it, the origins of modern psychiatry: slavery.   

Although Dix observed slavery firsthand in travels to the Caribbean and across the South, there are few mentions of slavery in her public pronouncements and private correspondence. “For her,” Gollaher writes, “black slaves seem barely to have existed” (p. 265). 

“Of a woman so thoroughly inspired by moral conviction, one must ask why the dictates of her conscience moved her to speak out boldly on asylums and prisons yet evaporated when she confronted the most profound and bitterly divisive moral issue of her century.”

Gollaher, p. 268

In part her silence on the nature and future of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s was a matter of political expediency, particularly in navigating state politics in the South.  But Gollaher argues that she did not see a moral equivalence between the condition of slaves and the plight of the insane.    

By the time the North Carolina asylum opened in 1856, ideas of categorical racial difference underwrote basic theories of sanity and madness among what was to become the first generation of psychiatrists. Articles in medical journals and lectures at professional meetings asserted empirical evidence to back up their claims. 

In the 1850s one asylum superintendent noted that Southern states reported fewer cases of insanity overall than Northern states. The reason, he argued, was the low incidence of insanity among African Americans: as the least “civilized” group in the population, they “rarely become subject to the malady.” In other words, the risk of attacks of insanity was the price civilized white Europeans paid for modernity. The obverse of this argument is that rather than causing mental distress, slavery provided prophyaxis against it. The peculiar institution was “the most orderly, most humane system of ensuring their [African Americans’] health, happiness, and above all, their productivity” (Gollaher, p. 274).   

But not even all Europeans were “civilized.” Dix echoed the concern expressed by asylum superintendents in the 1850s and 1860s that immigrants—particularly Irish immigrants—would swamp public asylums, displacing deserving “native American citizens” with those “singularly low in intellect or dulled by their religion’s creed” (Gollaher, p. 344).  In short, the Irish weren’t white enough.


Among the African Americans admitted to Dix in the aftermath of the war we noted a thirty-two year old married man from Columbus County named James Troy. The “supposed cause” of his admission was listed as “emancipation.” What logic construed freedom as a causal factor in insanity? As it turned out, it was an extension of the racial logic that made slavery a blessing to the enslaved.

Dix Admissions ledger with James Troy (middle, #757)

When I was working on the Eli Hill case study I came upon an 1896 paper by an asylum superintendent named John Miller, entitled “The Effects of Emancipation Upon the Mental and Physical Health of the Negro in the South.” It was presented at a gathering of asylum superintendents and published in the North Carolina Medical Journal. 

Drawing on “personal observation” and “data” from Southern asylums, he argued that former slaves and their descendants were constitutionally unable and socially unprepared to face the demands of the modern world, and, as a result, they faced an inevitable mental and physical degeneration. They were and forever would be, as he put it, martyrs to heredity.  Miller’s views on the relationship among emancipation, citizenship, and insanity were widely shared in the psychiatric community at the turn of the century. They also persisted among asylum superintendents well into the twentieth century.

Historian Martin Summers concludes: interlocking notions of racial difference and inferiority were not dubious social corollaries to a scientific theory of insanity, but constitutive of that theory.  They were “foundational to the production and deployment of [American] psychiatric knowledge from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.” (p. 3). The reproduction of racial difference in practice—day after day, year after year, generation after generation—had the effect of constructing an African American “psyche” that was “alien and fundamentally abnormal” (Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Race and Mental Illness in the Nation’s Capital [Oxford University Press, 2019] p. 4).

As Historian Jim Downs argues in Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), emancipation was not so much an event or condition as it was a landscape of housing insecurity, geographic dislocation, family loss, overlapping epidemics, political struggle, and economic repression through ruinous sharecropping and tenancy policies.  

The question of how and where African American North Carolinians would (or would not) receive mental health treatment arises again in the 1870s as a part of a more general debate over serious overcrowding at Dix—a situation that, despite asylum superintendents’ dire warning, had nothing to do with the number of African Americans admitted.   

After long debate, the legislature decided to build a second hospital for whites in Morganton (later named Broughton Hospital) and a hospital for African Americans (Cherry Hospital) in Goldsboro.

There is but one book-length history of Dix Hospital, and it pays scant attention to its operation in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. There is even less scholarship on the early history of the Eastern Insane Asylum, which became Cherry Hospital in 1959. There are biennial superintendents’ reports that provide statistical summaries of admissions, supposed causes, and patient outcomes, but there are, so far as I can tell, no independent accounts of its early history. It does seem that from its inception, Cherry was designed to be inferior to that of whites in the state’s two other asylums. In 1884 superintendent J. W. Worth boasted that the hospital’s board of directors could “flatter itself on having built and equipped the cheapest institution in the United States. ” It is also likely that admission and treatment reflected racist theories of physical and psychological difference between African Americans and whites.  Four years after Superintendent Worth’s boast, John Miller, author of “The Effects of Emancipation Upon the Mental and Physical Health of the Negro in the South,” succeeded him as superintendent of Cherry Hospital. He served for eighteen years, from 1888 until his death in 1906.

By the time it opened in August 1880, there were only seven African American patients left at Dix. They were all immediately transferred.  Eli Hill was not among them: he died on October 10, 1877, after confinement of seven years, seven months, and eleven days. 

Eli Hill was buried in the hospital cemetery. Like most of the other graves there, it is unlikely that there was a marker. Some were there because their families could not afford to transport the body and pay for a local burial; some had been custodial patients at Dix for decades and had lost connection with living family members; but the identity of many others was “buried” in the archive because commitment to an insane asylum was a mark of family shame. It was until the 1990s that there was a concerted effort by descendants, staff, and volunteers to name the individuals buried on Dix Hill and memorialize their lives with brass grave markers. The inventory that was created at that time found its way to a public genealogy website called “Find A Grave.” It was here that I discovered his grave marker. Thanks to our colleagues at the State Archives of NC, we now have a copy of their inventory, and now, thanks to my colleague Leah Tams, we have a searchable version.

Color photo of a flat, stone grave marker for Eli Hill. His date of death is listed as 10-2-1877.

The marker’s location does not necessarily correspond to the place Hill was buried. Ground-penetrating radar tests, conducted as a part of the master planning process, revealed that the  site used for burials is more extensive than is apparent today, and that to save space over the years, bodies were buried on top of each other. So far as we can tell, Eli Hill is almost certainly the only African American buried in the Dix Hospital cemetery prior to 1921, and may well be the only Black person buried there across the century of its use as a grave site. Every day, visitors to the park come upon his marker, not knowing who he was. The names of the African Americans who were patients at Dix between 1865 and 1880 need to be memorialized; the hospital’s systematic exclusion of state’s African American population for all but the last forty-seven years of its operation acknowledged; and Eli Hill’s life and service to his country commemorated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.