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Tortured History

In May 2022 my wife and I were in Goldsboro, NC for an event. On our way to the venue the GPS took us through the grounds of a large compound of mostly abandoned, old, foreboding, institutional brick buildings. One large multistory edifice had iron bars on the now broken windows. The crumbling buildings were located on a large piece of land with a working farm. The place had a spooky feel even in broad daylight. We wondered what on earth this could be?


creepy buildings
Photo from bradylavigne.com

The next day as we drove through again, we noticed an old brick sign with raised letters that said in all caps, WELCOME TO CHERRY HOSPITAL. We didn’t feel very welcome. Still curious, we found a historical marker down the road that provided a little more information.


Cherry Hospital
Photo from Wikipedia

I’m a sucker for history and this place gave me the willies. I made a mental note to do more research. What I learned is sad and disturbing. Originally named The North Carolina Asylum for the Colored Insane it was the sole mental institution for African Americans in the state until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. That forced Cherry Hospital, as it had been renamed, to desegregate and start admitting white patients.


Now and Then

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services website, “As a place of hope, care and recovery, Cherry Hospital has been working to improve the lives of those experiencing severe mental illness for more than a century.” This description is accompanied by the picture of a shiny new facility built just outside the original grounds. Both the picture and the description provide quite a whitewash to the dark and troubled truth of that 100+ year history. The NC Department of Agriculture owns and operates the farm. The website provides this glossy description, “The farm, transferred to N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in 1974, was originally a source of food for Cherry Hospital, a mental institution. Patients worked on the farm as a therapeutic benefit and gained skills to enable them to be mainstreamed into society and support themselves financially.”


Here’s a 1918 photo of the “therapeutic work” at the “Eastern Asylum for the Colored Insane” in North Carolina. The caption reads, “Women participate in work therapy” — picking cotton.


picking cotton
Image from Pat Deegan’s Separate and Unequal: The Legacy of Racially Segregated Psychiatric Hospitals

The residents worked the fields to provide food for themselves and income for the asylum. Unfortunately, the residents were also “loaned” to white farmers to work their fields. I’m not an expert on these things but I wonder how truly therapeutic or even different this was to people that had only recently been emancipated from slavery? The institution regularly was filled to capacity with 3000-3500 people. While conditions were described as crowded, the superintendent saw no need to do anything about it, lest resources be diverted from the white asylums of the state. “It is not… recommend here that steps should be taken for enlarging. The State, at present, has a large burden in providing for the white insane.”


creepy cemetery
Photo from findagrave.com

There are two cemeteries on the site. Hundreds of graves are marked solely with a number that corresponds to the person’s I.D. at the institution, the common practice for recording slaves during slavery, and more than 3000 more unmarked graves were identified in a 2002 archeological study. Horrendous is the word that comes to mind.


Junius Wilson

It’s hard for us today to grasp the enormity of the misdeeds and outright evil that existed, and in some cases flourished, until not so many years ago at this location. There is one story that perhaps draws back the shroud and touches the humanity in all of us. It is best told in the book Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson. Mr. Junius Wilson died at Cherry Hospital in 2001 at 93 years of age. Mr. Wilson was a deaf man who had been a resident since he was 17. He was accused of attempted rape in 1925; assumed to be insane because he communicated only in grunts and strange hand gestures and was locked up at the Asylum for the Colored Insane. The false rape accusation was finally dropped in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1991 that a social worker realized Mr. Wilson was not mentally ill, but merely deaf. He used a unique form of sign language taught historically to African Americans in the South, which had apparently been misinterpreted as the wild gesturing of an insane person.


Not only was Mr. Wilson falsely accused, and essentially left to rot among mentally unstable people for seven decades, he was castrated by Cherry Hospital staff upon admittance – a not uncommon fate for black people accused of rape at the time. After being freed from confinement, Mr. Wilson, who had no known living family members, was given a small cottage of his own on the grounds of the hospital. He had a yellow bike that he rode around the farm in his later years and was often seen fishing at the river that ran behind the fields or tending to the dogs that he kept in one of the barns.


junius wilson
Wilmington-Star News

These small glimpses into the past do not adequately begin to tell the story of an enormously sad, troubling, and tortured history that has remained hidden in plain sight. Nor does it tell the story of some surely kind and caring people that worked and helped the unfortunate residents of this institution. The thing that really bothers me is that I am confident from what little I have learned that it happened not only here in North Carolina where I live now, but similar versions of this story are also unfortunately repeated ad nauseam all over our nation and our world.


Now That You Know

The question for me is, now that I know about the tortured history of the residents of Cherry Hospital, what do I do about it? Because Jesus saved me, and I am now God’s servant I have the responsibility to be His witness. Jesus calls His followers to be His hands and feet; to go and tell the Good News of freedom and salvation to everyone. God is a just God and justice is in order. You know, the balanced scales of justice thing? How can I possibly affect that? It’s the State of NC after all and no one wants to deal with it.


One idea that I’ve thought of has to do with the farm. In 1994, part of Cherry Research Farm was designated as the site for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) Field Research, Education, and Outreach Facility – a joint effort between NCDA&CS, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University to focus on sustainable agriculture. OK cool. But how about the State just grant the entire 2,250 acres to a coalition of Black Farmers organized by N.C. A&T with proceeds going where they choose? Someone might even find some descendants that could benefit and help guide the process. I think I’ll raise this idea with my elected State Representatives. It may not work, but it’s worth a try.


*Update - I initiated the conversation with my elected representatives. Only one responded by indicating that there was nothing that they could do and recommending I contact the representatives from that county. I tried repeatedly but got no response. Reposting this serves as a reminder to me that I need to circle back again.


Here’s the thing – I don’t have the answers. I wasn’t the one sinned against (and yes, this is a terrible sin). And even if it had happened to me or my family, it wouldn’t give me special insight into true justice or adequate restitution. That’s God’s domain.


Where Do We Go For Answers?

In the Bible in Mark 10:17-18 a young man ran up to Jesus and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Knowing what we know now about Jesus that may seem like a strange answer. But this young man didn’t know Jesus was also God. The point Jesus was making is that even in our best, most educated, and wise moments our good ideas are still incomplete. We just don’t have all the answers. But God does. So, I’ll continue to pray and ask God for guidance and see if He can use me somehow to bring a measure of justice to address some very grievous wrongs.


How about you? What about history or our present bothers you? What seems wrong and contrary to God’s love for mankind as expressed in His written Word? Lawlessness and evil are always present. As Jesus warns us in Matthew 24:12 when you experience or even become aware of things like this – don’t let your love grow cold. To replace anger, and outrage, and sadness, let the love of God fill your heart to overflowing and whenever you are able, act on that love in a positive way. Let’s work together so we don’t create or perpetuate any new Tortured History for our children and grandchildren. Wouldn’t that be great?


Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments.


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