Online event spotlights mistreatment of Black patients in Jim Crow-era mental hospitals

In recognition of Black History Month in February, the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library will present a thought-provoking online event called “Jim Crow in the Asylum: Contesting Custody and Care in Southern Psychiatric Hospitals after WWII,” with Dr. Kylie Smith, PhD, on Thursday, Feb. 3, at 12 p.m.

The event is open to both Emory and non-Emory guests at no charge. Guests can register at this link, and they will receive a YouTube link prior to the event date.

Dr. Smith draws on extensive archival sources to show the ways that Southern psychiatric hospitals in the mid-20th century had become home to many thousands of Black patients with mental and physical disabilities, where treatment and care was custodial at best, and violent and abusive at worst. Yet these facilities were also the scenes of important civil rights activism in the 1960s, which revealed the ways that psychiatry functioned as a tool of white supremacy. This activism led to the end of segregation, but it could not fix the racism that continues to affect mental health and disability care today.

This talk is presented in conjunction with the National Library of Medicine’s online exhibit, “Care and Custody: Past Responses to Mental Health.”

The presentation includes verbal descriptions of abuse and violence toward patients in psychiatric hospitals during the Jim Crow era that may be disturbing (but no images depicting the abuse appear in the presentation).

Dr. Smith is an associate professor and Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow for Nursing and the Humanities, and the 2021-2022 President’s Humanities Fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. She teaches the history of race and US health care in the School of Nursing and the Department of History at Emory.

Her new book project, “Jim Crow in the Asylum: Psychiatry and Civil Rights in the American South,” is supported by a grant from the National Library of Medicine and the Emory Digital Monographs project and will be published by UNC Press in 2023. More information can be found on her book project website, which is being developed with the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship.


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