There was nothing there. No marker. No memorial. The hospital had been massive, a campus. Its mission had been legendary. And now there was no trace of it at all.
The Lakin State Hospital for the Colored Insane opened in 1926 in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The mental health facility was one of a series of community services proposed by African American legislators T.G. Nutter, Harry Capehart, and T.J. Coleman. The trio also established the Lakin State Industrial School for Colored Boys, a reform school for non-violent juvenile offenders, age 10 and up (previously, so-called delinquent boys had been sent by judges—or their parents—to a center which housed “inmates” as young as 6).
The main building of the Hospital for the Colored Insane was an imposing brick structure, wide and featureless: unadorned windows, skeletal columns. It looked like a prison, though the “prison” was technically across the street. Both the facilities had opened under the auspices of separate but equal treatment for African Americans.
But Lakin was special: It was purportedly one of only 2 hospitals in the country to have an all-African American staff (the other was Tuskegee US Veterans Hospital 91 in Alabama).
A small river town at the base of the Allegheny Mountains, Point Pleasant sits in the foothills of Appalachia. It’s a rural and desolate area, known for poverty. The county was then, as it is now, mostly white.
Upon Lakin’s opening, the Journal of the National Medical Association noted West Virginia “has recognized ability in the colored medical profession to manage this enterprise…[Lakin] gives an opportunity for young medical men of the race to fix themselves in this heretofore rather exclusive line of practice.”
But Lakin didn’t just provide career opportunities for African American doctors, it provided comfort and safety for patients. Everyone at Lakin, not just the doctors, but orderlies, secretaries, aides, nurses, was black. Lakin was “the only state hospital under the management of an African American Superintendent,” according to Vanessa Jackson’s Separate but Equal: The Legacy of Racially Segregated Hospitals.
Larry Moore, who worked for more than 40 years as a social worker at Lakin, described the hospital as a “serious attempt to accomplish the ‘equal’ portion of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine” without the prejudice of predominantly white-staffed hospitals.
The campus of the hospital looked flat and bare, almost treeless, a far cry from the landscaped grounds of other, mostly white institutions, like the one in my own Ohio town, just across the river: The Athens Lunatic Asylum, whose gardens were designed by a disciple of Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape architect of Central Park.
Lakin may not have had fancy gardens, but the hospital had a working farm. It had orchards and livestock the patients tended. There were barbers and beauticians on campus, an auto shop and ministry. Patients cooked. They canned. “If it hadn’t been for the patients, that hospital would’ve never made it,” Edith Ross, who started working at Lakin as an aide in 1951 when she was 18, said in an interview with the Point Pleasant Daily Register. “The patients cleaned that place up like a hotel.”
As well as working next to the staff, patients lived alongside them. Employee dorms weren’t constructed until the early ‘50s, and before then, staff slept in rooms in the patients’ wards. This meant employees were pretty much constantly on call, but Ross also said this helped make Lakin “like family”—a statement Jackson echoes in her description of archival photographs: “After an endless parade of white men in hats in the official portraits at all of the other African American facilities, the Lakin official photo looks more like a family portrait with female staff and even a small child present.”
Then, in the late 1940s, Dr. Walter Freeman came to Lakin.
Freeman was the inventor of the “ice pick lobotomy,” where a tool is inserted through the tear-duct, destroying the prefrontal cortex of a patient’s brain by scraping or cutting most of the connections away, ostensibly to cure the patient of mental illness. Dr. Freeman, a white man, performed between 150 to over 200 of the radical procedures on black patients at Lakin.
He operated at Lakin so much that a 2014 PBS documentary on Freeman prominently features the hospital; it was, after all, one of the central places he worked.
In his book The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and his Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness, biographer Jack El-Hai writes: “Freeman devoted an intensity and energy to his mission in West Virginia… he frequently visited the state, with the result that its per capita rate of lobotomy was the highest in the nation.”
El-Hai references Freeman performing lobotomies on patients whom Freeman called “twenty very dangerous Negroes.” Freeman later saw the men relaxing on the ground with only a single guard watching them, and reported that half the men were soon released.
Families and hospital staff may have been less pleased. Ross did not report many success stories from the treatment done by Freeman, whom she described as “cold”—and at least two patients died at Lakin from the procedure. Freeman himself admitted in the study “West Virginia Lobotomy Project,” which included patients from Lakin, and was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1954: “Of the 195 patients remaining in hospital [after receiving lobotomies] not more than 8 could be considered improved.” Freeman’s arrival marked the beginning of the end of Lakin.
After desegregation in 1954, the hospital became a place of mostly white doctors and nurses, mostly white (and wealthy) patients. Its mission switched from mental health care to treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. Currently, Lakin serves as a long-term nursing facility.
Very little has been written about Lakin’s history, and few, even in West Virginia, know about its years as a home for the “colored insane.” Internet searches for the hospital turn up primarily ghost stories, page after page of “sightings”—the only reason many people have heard of the place at all.
The main hospital building was demolished in the ‘70s. A historical marker was “removed for cleaning,” according to multiple sources, but never replaced. The school across the street was razed in 2006.
“I do find it frustrating that political correctness has led to many years of efforts to deny the history and legacy of Lakin,” Moore said, arguing that the removal of the marker won’t “change the fact that racial prejudice and discrimination did actually exist in West Virginia, and was a factor in every aspect of the lives of West Virginia residents, just as it was in the rest of the United States of America.”
Comments on the few stories published about Lakin, the hospital or school, are often pleas for answers (my grandfather was imprisoned for stealing chickens, where can we find his records?) with no replies. All that remains of Lakin now is questions.
Why did Dr. Freeman operate on so many black patients? Where are the records? Why is there no marker? Why were the buildings not preserved? Moore called them: “reminders of where we were, what we tried.”
Most of Lakin is now a bare field. The only original building still standing is the Office Building, used for storage for the women’s prison, which now shares the grounds with the nursing home. The campus is still mostly treeless, and the wind howls down the long bare drive. When I visited, it had just snowed.
A layer of white concealed everything.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Alison Stine’s first YA novel SUPERVISION was published by HarperVoyager this month. Also the author of three books of poetry, she lives in the Appalachian foothills.
• West Virginia Lobotomy Project, JAMA