Monday, June 28, 2004

When the last handful of mentally ill patients leave Crownsville Hospital Center today, the state of Maryland will close the doors on a nearly century-old facility, leaving behind an empty building — and a potter’s field of unmarked graves holding the remains of the hundreds of mostly black patients.

“The graves and the burial site will be retained, maintained and treated with the kind of dignity and respect that one would expect,” said state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini.

He said the Anne Arundel County hospital, formerly known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, will historically preserve roughly 500 acres of the 1,200-acre campus, where 1,800 graves of the hospital’spredominately black former patients are located.

The hospital — which at one time housed 1,300 patients annually with a ratio of one doctor to 225 adults and children in buildings meant for 1,100 — is shutting its doors this week to save taxpayers $12 million a year.

Its patient population peaked in 1955 at 2,719.

Today, the last of its 200 patients will be transferred to the state’s two remaining treatment facilities at Spring Grove Hospital Center in Baltimore County and Springfield Hospital Center in Carroll County — largely because of advances in psycho-pharmaceutical medicine that enables a shift away from warehousing those with mental illnesses.

“This is about restructuring the delivery system to make it more efficient,” said Mr. Sabatini, who added the mental health system will continue treating the same number of patients.

He said the remaining nonprofit organizations renting space on the hospital grounds will be allowed to stay until government officials exercise first options on the land or until a private company buys the land.

The hospital, established by the General Assembly in 1910, began operation the next year, and was renamed Crownsville State Hospital in 1912.

Although the hospital was built to be a service to the mentally ill, patients who were lost, were homeless or had syphilis and tuberculosis also ended up there. After death, many of the bodies either were claimed by family, buried in private cemeteries or sent to Baltimore for brain experiments.

Staffers, however, buried an estimated 1,800 people on the grounds. About 1,400 are in unnamed graves, marked with numbers to protect their families’ identities. Historians have been working for three years to complete identification — difficult because many of the headstones did not have names on them until 1953.

Mr. Sabatini said the closing will create a more efficient system enabling the state to direct $5 million into community-based programs for the mentally ill. The state also has set aside another $1 million to maintain the campus.

“That was very old facility that required a great deal of maintenance,” he said. “It would have required some significant capital investment in the very near future.”

He said that nearly all of the 490 Crownsville employees have found new jobs and that the remaining eight are being assisted with employment.

But Sandy Bellamy, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, is concerned that the institution’s heritage be preserved.

“Our first concern is to protect the documents and photographs — any tangible artifacts of history,” she said.

Mr. Sabatini agreed.

“Crownsville occupies a unique place in American history,” he said. “We are going to preserve archives and memorabilia to make sure they are appropriately preserved.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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