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Georgia consumer activists restore cemetery at Central State Hospital

By Patricia Deegan, Ph.D.

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On an overcast day in March 1997 members of the Georgia Consumer Council toured Central State Hospital in Milledgeville Georgia. Council members, many of whom were former patients at the institution, visited the old museum on the hospital grounds. Most felt in a grim mood after seeing certain museum pieces such as the electroshock machines and the tools used for ice-pick lobotomies. But nothing prepared them for what they were to find when they asked to see the graveyards. Expecting to find a proper cemetery, they were instead taken to an overgrown forest and told that at least 20,000 former patients were buried somewhere out there.

Larry Fricks, the Director of Consumer Relations for Georgia said, "There were no markers at all near the road or in the field. Parts of the [field] were jungle. We had tears in our eyes." (The Atlanta Journal, 10/5/97 p.M3) The tears lead Council members to make a vow to restore the cemetery and to honor those whom society had rejected as "out of mind-out of sight." The Georgia State Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1842 and the first "attendants" at the asylum were slaves. By the 1960s the inpatient census was over 12,000, making "Milledgeville" perhaps the largest state hospital in the country at the time. During its long history thousands upon thousands of inmates died and were buried in six cemeteries established on the grounds of the institution. "Out of mind, out of sight" describes society's attitude toward those left to waste away on the back wards of the institution. Forgotten during life, they remained forgotten in death as well. Inmates were buried in segregated cemeteries for white males, white females, "colored" males, and "colored" females.1 Numbered stakes without names or other identifying information marked graves. Groundskeepers charged with cemetery upkeep often pulled up the grave markers, leaving them in piles in order to make lawn mowing less tedious. But in the spring of 1997 after nearly two weeks of steady rain, Diane McCarty and Doris Hester, both from the Georgia Consumer Council, stood on a knoll looking out on the overgrown cemetery. A piece of metal caught a glimmer of sunshine and they went over to investigate. They found a pile of metal grave markers buried under decades' worth of dirt and now washed out into the open by spring rains. "We knew at that moment that we were meant to do this work," says Diane McCarty. "It was like the universe was saying, 'It's time. It's time.'" (The Atlanta Journal, 10/5/97, p.M3)

Indeed, it is time. The Georgia Consumer Council has "adopted the cemetery memorial project as a tribute to those who faced mental disabilities in a less enlightened time as an effort to reduce stigma and promote more community awareness and education, and as a symbol of the progress the consumer movement has made." After gaining the cooperation of state officials the Consumer Council has made significant strides in restoring the cemetery. Much of the overgrowth has been cut back leaving a lovely forest of Georgia pines. Graves and additional markers have been discovered using a metal detector and a small red flag has been placed where each marker belongs. Although it is doubtful that the Council will ever be able to locate exactly where each marker belongs, they hope to eventually be able to locate individual graves within a ten-foot radius.

I had the privilege of meeting with the Georgia Consumer Council in December of 1997. I saw the significant progress they had made in clearing out the cemetery and locating the grave markers. I watched as they consulted with a sculptor who is shaping a memorial marker that will stand atop the knoll overlooking the cemetery. I saw the Consumer Council critiquing the plans of another artist's rendition of an ornate gate that will mark the entrance to the restored cemetery. But mostly what I saw was the glow of pride, determination, and purpose in the eyes of these activists. Out of mind-out of sight no longer, these activists inspired me to return to my state to begin organizing other consumer/survivors to restore the cemeteries at our state hospitals.

  • If you would like more information or want to make a contribution to the cemetery memorial call the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network at 1-800-297-6146.
  • If you have information about cemetery restoration projects at state hospitals in your area, please let us know!
  • The Georgia Story: How to Successfully Restore a State Hospital Cemetery, by Larry Fricks for the Georgia Consumer Council The technical assistance manual funded by the federal Center for Mental Health Services as part of this project of the National Empowerment Center entitled: It's About Time: Discovering, Recovering and Celebrating Psychiatric Consumer/Survivor History. (PDF, 51 pages, 1.19MB)

FOOTNOTE:

1) Please note that Georgia was not the only state to have services, wards and cemeteries segregated by race. For instance St. Elizabeths Hospital, the first Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., maintained segregated wards until the mid-1950s.