Civil Rights Groups Call on State to Investigate, Memorialize African American Patients at Crownsville State Hospital

August 5, 2013

Coalition letter to Governor Martin O'Malley

 

CONTACT: Meredith Curtis, ACLU of Maryland, 410-889-8555; media@aclu-md.org 

Carl Snowden, Caucus; 410-269-1524; carl_snowden@hotmail.com 

Jacqueline Boone Allsup, AACo NAACP; 443 883-5151; president@annearundelcountynaacp.org

Virginia Knowlton Marcus, MDLC; 410-727-6352; virginiak@mdlclaw.org

 

ANNAPOLIS - Saying the time has come to fully document the history of African American patients who experienced inhumane conditions, treatment, and experimentation, in segregated Maryland mental health facilities, and particularly Crownsville State Hospital, a coalition of civil rights and disability rights groups are calling on Governor Martin O'Malley to investigate and make known their experiences and contributions to Maryland. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, the Caucus of African-American Leaders (the Caucus), the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches (Maryland NAACP), the Anne Arundel County NAACP (Anne Arundel NAACP), and the Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC) have sent a letter to the Governor asking for a concerted effort by the State to put together the pieces of the tragic Crownsville story that have been told over the years, and to create a fitting memorial for the more than 1,800 patients whose remains are buried at Crownsville to ensure their lives are never forgotten. 

 

Sparked by a June 2013 article in the Annapolis Capital Gazette regarding patient treatment - and mistreatment - at Crownsville, the coalition has surveyed available historical sources and found that more questions are raised than have been answered. The Crownsville State Hospital was established in 1911 as "The Hospital for the Negro Insane," a segregated institution for African Americans. To save money, patients were used to help build the facility, including clearing land and building a railroad spur. 

 

Crownsville was intended to be "separate but equal, " but available reports make clear that conditions were substandard  - even by the low standards of the day. At various points Crownsville was dangerously and inhumanely overcrowded and understaffed. In fact, at certain times, patients were more likely to die in the facility than to be discharged. For decades, adults and children were housed together, and "Crownsville housed the criminally insane, the mentally ill and retarded, adults and children along with drunks and people with syphilis and tuberculosis, all on one campus."  

 

The coalition is concerned that in many instances over the years, African-Americans appear to have been sent to Crownsville inappropriately.  For example, in 1961, there were reports of a trio of civil rights activists who were arrested for trespassing while trying to integrate a restaurant on Route 40 near Elkton.  After they were detained, they went on a hunger strike and were ordered transferred to Crownsville State Hospital to be "evaluated."

 

In addition, there is credible evidence of questionable procedures as well as painful and unethical experimentation on patients at Crownsville and other state hospitals without consent of the patients or their families. The full scope of testing and research done on patients at Crownsville and other psychiatric hospitals have never been documented, despite the obvious historical and social significance. The coalition believes it vital that the patients' contributions to medical research be acknowledged. 

 

Lastly, the coalition's letter asks that the state identify individuals buried in unmarked graves at Crownsville - approximately 1,800 - as well as those patients' remains that were sent to the University of Maryland medical schools. These individuals deserve to be memorialized, as patients at Springfield Hospital and Spring Grove Hospital have been memorialized with historical documentation and museums. 

 

"It is our hope that Governor O'Malley will do what his predecessor former Governor Parris N. Glendenning did and use the power of his office to right a wrong," said Carl O. Snowden, Convener of the Caucus of African-American Leaders. "With the stroke of a pen, Governor O'Malley can ensure that what happened at Crownsville State Hospital will never be forgotten or repeated in the State of Maryland."

 

"For years, local historians and activists have worked to name those buried at Crownsville State Hospital and learn more about what happened to them there," said Jacqueline Boone Allsup, President of the Anne Arundel County Branch of the NAACP. "But what happened at Crownsville is part of Maryland's story, not just local history, and so we ask the State to step up, investigate this past, and memorialize those who lived it." 

 

"The unmarked graves at Crownsville State Hospital are silent, constant reminders of a disturbing chapter of Maryland history that needs to be told," said Gerald Stansbury, President of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches. "Governor O'Malley, the time is now for the State of Maryland to do right by the many who suffered there, under the shadow of Jim Crow, and finally bring light to their stories."

 

"True justice demands a full accounting of the past, including those periods we would like most to forget, in order for Marylanders to move forward in recognition of the experiences and contributions of all our people," said Susan Goering, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland. "Patients at the Crownsville State Hospital had the right to fair treatment, to bodily autonomy, and to be honored and named in their deaths. Governor O'Malley has the opportunity now to help Maryland make peace with the past and make sure it is always remembered." 

 

"We have a moral imperative to unearth the buried history of Crownsville and acknowledge the suffering and sacrifices of its inhabitants who, evidence indicates, were subjected to unspeakable human rights abuses fueled by racial and disability discrimination," said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, Executive Director of the Maryland Disability Law Center.  "Bringing this sordid history to light will help restore the victims' dignity, serve as a reminder and lesson, and reinforce the importance of adequate safeguards to protect vulnerable persons from dehumanizing, degrading rights violations."

 

###