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Digital Archive Holds Untold History of African American Mental Health

Resplendent in his trademark sport coat and bow tie, Louis Armstrong plays a trumpet for a large gathering of patients underneath a grove of trees outside of Central State Hospital, the world's first African American psychiatric hospital in Petersburg, Virginia. This is one of the many priceless images stored away in the hospital's filing cabinets that were on the brink of destruction. Due to changes in Virginia's records retention laws, any hospital document over 10 years old had to be destroyed-one hundred years of historic materials lost forever.

When King Davis, professor of African and African American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, found out about the impending demolition, he immediately flew to Virginia to negotiate a means to salvage the treasure trove of African American mental health history. Davis, who is a former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Mental Health, was granted a certain amount of time to copy and digitize the archives.

Established in 1868, Central State Hospital - formerly Central State Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane - was created in response to the newly freed slaves after the Civil War. The mounds of forgotten materials offer a rare glimpse into what life was like for African Americans following the Civil War to the post-civil rights era.