Crownsville: A piece of Maryland history that shouldn't be forgotten

Crownsville Hospital building

 

In honor of Black History Month, the ACLU of Maryland and other coalition partners want to ensure that the victims of unconscionable treatment at Crownsville State Hospital are not forgotten.

 

After the Civil War, in Maryland and across the country, the number of African-Americans labeled "insane" skyrocketed. Whites claimed that this surge was due to Black inferiority and the inability of Blacks to handle their newfound freedom.

 

Crownsville was established in 1911, as the Maryland Hospital for the Negro Insane and it is apparent that its beginnings were grounded in racism. During the 20th century, Crownsville State Hospital was an underfunded, overcrowded, state-run mental hospital where African-American patients lived in inhumane conditions, experienced mistreatment, and were subjected to experimentation without their informed consent.

 

Originally, 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. Over time, Crownsville became dangerously and inhumanely overcrowded and understaffed. In fact, patients were more likely to die in the facility than to be discharged. For decades, "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."  

 

On August 2, 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the Caucus of African-American Leaders, the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, the Anne Arundel County NAACP, and the Maryland Disability Law Center sent a letter to the Governor Martin O'Malley 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 there, so as to ensure that  their lives are never forgotten. The groups also asked the State to identify individuals buried in unmarked graves, as well as those patients' remains that were sent to the University of Maryland medical schools.

 

A public hearing organized by the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland on the mistreatment and abuse at the former Crownsville State Hospital was held on September 18, 2013 in Annapolis.

 

On February 11, 2014, the Governor notified the coalition that he would be appointing an independent expert to chair a workgroup to review the issues raised in the coalition's letter and testimony at the Legislative Black Caucus hearing. Workgroup membership will include representatives of coalition organizations and relevant state agencies including the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Maryland State Archives.

 

The ACLU of Maryland believes that the patients who died at Crownsville and those who contributed to medical research should be properly acknowledged and never forgotten. We are hopeful that the outcome of the workgroup will honor the patients who suffered at Crownsville by fully telling their story and helping to support current advocacy on equity in mental health services in Maryland.

 

Read our letter to the Governor. And learn more about the ACLU of Maryland's racial justice work.