Disability and the African American Experience
Confinement in Charleston, South Carolina1738
- The Charleston, South Carolina Workhouse opens and starts receiving: “all rogues, vagabonds, lewd and idle persons and beggars, stubborn and obstinate apprentices and servants, and children, common drunkards, common night walkers, pilferers, wanton, and lascivious persons, common scolds, and brawlers, tradesmen, and laborers neglecting their callings, and leading idle and dissolute lives and who do not provide for the support of their families, …..stubborn, obstinate or incorrigible negroes or slaves.”
- The list provides insight into the nature and content of some of the earliest facilities that were available to African Americans during the colonial period.
- The South Carolina colonial assembly legislates that colonial parishes are responsible for the public maintenance of “lunatic” slaves if that maintenance can not be provided by the owner.
- This legislation was the result of a slave woman named Kate who had been found to be “out of her senses.” She was accused of infanticide.
The First of Its Kind in the United States1773
A Future leader of Rebellion1781
- The future leader of a failed slave rebellion, Denmark Vesey, is sold to the harsh environment of a Haitian sugar plantation after serving in the comfort of Captain Vesey’s ship.
- Shortly thereafter, Denmark began experiencing epileptic fits. As a result, Captain Vesey was forced to take back his slave and refund the buyer.
- Denmark never experienced another epileptic fit and eventually led a slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1822.
Society for Mutual Relief1808
- South Carolina Lunatic Asylum opens in Columbia.
- In 1829, a fourteen year-old slave named Jefferson was admitted, but was expected to live outside in the yard.
- Blacks were not legally admitted until 1848.
- During the Civil War, the hospital became a refuge for freedmen and those displaced by the war. Living quarters were strictly segregated.
Liberator of Slaves1833
- An adolescent Harriet Tubman witnesses an overseer preparing to punish a slave from another family and intervenes.
- In the process, Harriet is struck in the head with a two pound weight—resulting in a skull fracture.
- She recovered slowly from the injury and, for the rest of her life, experienced seizures, narcolepsy, and headaches.
- After escaping from slavery, Harriet helped more than 300 slaves achieve their freedom by means of the Underground Railroad.
Phineas Taylor Barnum1835
The American Anti-Slavery Society1839
- American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, co-authored by Theodore D. Weld, is published by the American Anti-Slavery Society.
- The document offered insight into the views that masters held in regards to slaves with disabilities:
- Other descriptions of disabilities also appeared in the testimony.
The United States Census as Propaganda (Part 1)1840
- The United States conducts the sixth census of the nation’s population.
- This census attempted to enumerate people with various types of disabilities.
- Pro-slavery advocates used the data to further their argument that slavery was necessary, because the census seemed to indicate that the percentage of “insane negroes” increased the further north one resided in the country.
The United States Census as Propaganda (Part 2)1840
- An example of census data being used as propaganda occurred at the Worcester State Hospital in Mass. where the deputy-marshal recorded 133 “colored lunatics,” despite the hospital having no African Americans with mental disabilities.
- While the statistics were later exposed to be false, the findings were never reversed by then Secretary of State John C. Calhoun—a staunch advocate of state’s rights and an advocate of slavery.
“Committee on Asylums for Colored Persons”1844
- The Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane creates the “Committee on Asylums for Colored Persons.”
- Founder of the AMSAII and superintendent of the Western Lunatic Asylum in Virginia, Dr. Francis T. Stribling, opposed integration in asylums.
- The committee’s official stance, written by Dr. John M. Galt in 1853, stated:
Eastern State Asylum1846
- The Virginia State Legislature votes to allow the admission of slaves to the Eastern State Asylum in non-segregated quarters.
- Superintendent Dr. John M. Galt II faced criticism for this practice.
- By 1869, segregation of patients was reestablished at the asylum—despite the fact that the Civil War had ended four years prior.
Rascality in Slaves1851
- Pro-slavery advocate and Louisiana physician Samuel Cartwright identifies two mental syndromes distinctive to slaves.
- The first was known as Drapetomania, a disease that caused slaves to runaway.
- Dysaethesia Aethiopica, known as “rascality” by slave overseers, caused “hebetude of the mind and obtuse sensibility of the body.” Symptoms included disobedience, insolence, and a refusal to work.
- Both “diseases” were remedied through punishments such as whipping and hard labor.
The Architect’s Opinion1855
- Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, architect of insane asylums, states:
- Dr. Kirkbride’s opinion was followed in one way or another, especially in the South, until desegregation was called for by the federal government.
- Thomas Wiggins, also known as “Blind Tom,” gives his first concert in Georgia.
- He was an autistic savant who was able to play music on the piano after listening to a song only once.
- He could sing and recite poetry and prose in several languages, phonetically duplicate long speeches, and reproduce the sounds of nature, machines, and musical instruments on the piano. 
- Longview Asylum opens in Cincinnati and begins admitting African American patients in 1866.
- A separate building was constructed at a distance from the main building to care for these “colored patients.”
- This portion of the asylum served African Americans across the entire State of Ohio.
- Camp Barker was established to provide shelter, medical care, food, and possible employment to escaped slaves.
- Eventually the camp and others combined to create Freedman’s Village on the estate of Robert E. Lee in Arlington, Virginia.
- Freedmen’s Hospital was built on the grounds in 1862 to care for freed African Americans with disabilities and other medical issues.
American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission1863
- The American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission is formed to determine the status of former slaves and slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation.
- The Commission surveyed the number of African Americans in hospitals outside of the South. Dr. Samuel G. Howe was one of the appointed commissioners.
A Female Buffalo Soldier1866
- Cathay Williams poses as man in order to enroll in the United States Army.
- She served from 1866 – 1868 and was eventually discharged with a disability.
- The army surgeon claimed that she was of “a feeble habit.”
- She was the first African American woman to enlist and be documented as a soldier in the United States Army.
Central Lunatic Asylum1869
Central Lunatic Asylum – Whitworth Lodge
- The Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane is built near Petersburg, Virginia.
- This was the first institution established specifically for the care of African Americans with various mental disabilities.
- By 1938, the asylum became the largest institution for African Americans who were labeled as mentally ill—housing over 3,500 patients.
- The “South Carolina Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind” establishes a Colored Department to serve African Americans with hearing and visual impairments.
- The school would not be integrated until 1967.
A Medical Society of Their Own1884
A Medical Journal of Their Own1892
- Dr. Miles V. Lynk, the son of former slaves, creates The Medical and Surgical Observer—the United States’ first medical journal for African American physicians.
- The publication only lasted eighteen months due to financial problems, but it nevertheless helped establish the first professional network of African American physicians.
National Medical Association1895
- The National Medical Association is founded by a group of twelve African American physicians.
- The Association was created as a response to the American Medical Association only admitting white physicians.
- Dr. Robert F. Boyd served as the Association’s first president and was one of the forces, along with Dr. Miles V. Lynk, behind its creation.
- The Association aimed to combat racism and segregation in the medical field—both for physicians and patients.
Tuberculosis: A Black Disease?1904
- The National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis is established to treat and prevent the deadly disease from spreading.
- At the time, medical theory believed that tuberculosis occurred more in African Americans than it did in whites.
- Much of this was do to the scant knowledge of microbiology and the poor conditions in which many southern blacks lived.
- The Industrial Institute for Colored Deaf, Blind and Orphans opens in Taft, Oklahoma.
- The “exclusive purpose” of the institute was:
Success in Virginia1909
- The Virginia School for the Colored Deaf and Blind is established in the city of Newport News.
- William C. Ritter, who had lost his hearing due to scarlet fever, served as the school’s first superintendent.
- He had petitioned in favor of the school’s creation for more than 8 years before funding was provided by the state legislature.
Maryland State Lunacy Commission1911
- A 1908 report by the Maryland State Lunacy Commission spurred the establishment of the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland.
- A reason for the new hospital was the horrible conditions that were found at Montevue Hospital in Frederick, Maryland.
- Built in Crownsville, Maryland, many of the hospital’s patients came from the Spring Grove State Hospital.
Robert Demosthenes O’Kelly1912
- Roger Demosthenes O’Kelly, an alumnus of the North Carolina School for the Colored Blind and Deaf, receives a law degree from Yale University—becoming the only black deaf-mute lawyer to practice law in the United States at that time.
- Article about Roger D. O'Kelly from the Silent Worker.
The Black Stork1916
- The silent film “The Black Stork” is released. Using eugenics as its central theme, the movie discusses the consequences of breeding with the unhealthy—including a black slave that causes a “genetic contamination” in an otherwise well-to-do family.
- The result is the birth of defective children, making members of such families unfit for marriage.
West Virginia Follows Suit1919
- The West Virginia State Colored Tuberculosis Sanatorium, later known as “Denmar Sanatorium,” admits its first patient.
- The sanatorium’s first superintendent wrote of its location: “The altitude is 2,200 feet, giving the rarity and purity of atmosphere so desirable in the treatment of tuberculosis . . . Mountains protect [the village of Denmar] on all sides from the harsh blasts of winter. ”
- University at Buffalo sociologist Niles Carpenter publishes a study, “Feebleminded and Pauper Negroes in Public Institutions.”
- The study examined the number of whites and blacks in almshouses and in institutions for the feebleminded.
- Carpenter’s data showed that, for every hundred thousand people, 52.7 African Americans resided in almshouses and 9.4 in institutions, compared to 59.2 native-born whites residing in almshouses and 47.3 in institutions.
Racial Integrity Act1924
Segregation in Colony Homes1929
- Rome State School in New York initiated a colony care program in 1906 to provide students with opportunities to live and work in the community. By 1929, the school had established 45 colonies—two of which were exclusively for “Negro” students.
- The colony home in Hamilton County, the first of these two colonies, provided domestic service opportunities.
- Patients who excelled in this setting were then transferred to a colony in Harlem that allowed for increased community living and socializing.
The Tuskegee Experiment1932
- The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” is initiated by the United States Public Health Service in conjunction with the Tuskegee Institute and the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital.
- Conducted without the consent of the initial 600 black men, the study continued until 1972. Long term effects of untreated syphilis include issues with mental functions, memory loss, loss of vision, balance, and other symptoms.
Help from the President1941
- The Tuskegee Infantile Paralysis Center is established with grant funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis—founded in 1938 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt .
- The $161,350 grant was announced by the director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Basil O’Connor.
Polio Vaccination Field Trials1954
- As polio epidemics spread during the early 20th century, it was thought to be only a “white” disease.
- This thinking in medical circles changed by the end of the 1920’s when it was realized that any race could contract the disease.
- Because of this conceptual change, African American children were included in the first vaccination field trials.
- Civil rights activists Juanita Nelson, Wallace Nelson, and Rose Robinson are arrested for trying to eat at a restaurant in Elkton, Maryland.
- They were arrested for trespassing and eventually sent to Crownsville State Hospital for a mental evaluation.
- The Maryland State Attorney believed the 3 trespassers showed signs of mental illness. Dr. Charles Ward, the hospital’s superintendent, disagreed and they were later just charged for trespassing.
- Hobson v. Hansen is ruled on by United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Judge J. Skelly Wright.
- Wright’s ruling declared that ability-grouping based on race, or the “track system,” was unconstitutional.
- Ability-grouping was found to place more African American students in special education classrooms than white students. The suit was led by civil rights leader Julius Wilson Hobson.
- Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia forces the District of Columbia’s public schools to be inclusive of children with disabilities.
- The seven plaintiffs in the case were African American children with disabilities, but the case was fought on behalf of 18,000 children with disabilities being excluded from public education.
A Racial Distinction1973
An End to Eugenic Sterilization1974
The Federal Government Admits Guilt1974
- The United States Government agrees to pay a $10 million settlement to people impacted by the Tuskegee Study.
- Living syphilitic group participants received $37,500.
- Heirs of deceased syphilitic group participants received $15,000.
- Living control group participants received $16,000.
- Heirs of deceased control group participants received $5,000.
Larry P. v. Riles1979
- Federal District Judge Robert Peckham makes a decision in the case Larry P. v. Riles.
- The case involved the use of intelligence tests for placement of black children in classes for “educable mentally retarded” in California.
- Judge Peckham ruled that the disproportionate number of black children in California’s special education classrooms was due to cultural bias in the IQ testing.
An End to a Eugenic Era2003
- Mike Easley, the governor of North Carolina, signs legislation ending the state’s use of forced sterilization on people with disabilities.
- Over 7,600 people—many with developmental disabilities—were sterilized during the state’s eugenic program from 1929 until 1974.
- Sterilizations were performed on young black women in the state through the 1960s.
African Americans and the disABILITY Experience: A Project of the Museum of disABILITY History and the HBCU Disability Consortium