A project is underway to digitize the records of the Central State Hospital in Virginia. Led by King Davis, director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, the project includes some 800,000 documents which span the period between 1870 and 1970. The collection is extraordinarily unique both in terms of its size and its scope. Davis has described that: “This is the most complete set of records on African Americans and mental health in place in the world” (source: Alcalde).
The Central State Hospital – formerly the Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane – was opened in 1870. It was the only institution designated for the treatment of African Americans to operate in the state prior to the passing of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Its story is one of only a small handful of “Colored Asylums”: while institutions for the insane would open in every state in the continental US during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the vast majority served a uniquely White demographic.
The impetus for the project was reportedly the deterioration of the Central State Hospital’s records. Although digitization provides a way to preserve this rare archival collection, researchers must face the challenge of maintaining the privacy of the individual patients. To address these concerns the team is developing new Steganoscription software that will recognize the personal information contained within the handwritten documents.
Unfortunately the status of the project has been reported as “at a standstill” due to funding problems. In the meantime, a prototype of the website design can be found here.