Judith Weisenfeld explores psychiatry, race and religion in the post-Civil War era

Tuesday, Jan 5, 2021
by Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

In Princeton’s 2020 Discovery magazine, AMS executive committee member Judith Weisenfeld, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religion, explains how psychiatry was used to subjugate Black people following Emancipation.

In 1883, a small news item appeared in the Richmond Dispatch: “Mary Judah … (colored) charged with being disorderly and using profane language on the street. Fined $2.50.”

Although the fine was modest compared to the $20 speeding ticket given to the driver of a horse-drawn buggy, it was probably a significant sum for Judah, a 21-year-old domestic servant. She paid the fine, but two years later found herself in court again. This time she faced a new charge: lunacy.

At her hearing, white physician James Beale testified that the defendant was “noisy, filthy and quarrelsome.” What was more, Beale said, Judah claimed she was the victim of supernatural forces: She’d been “tricked or conjured” by someone who meant her harm. The all-white panel of three judges declared Judah insane due to “religious excitement” and committed her to Virginia’s Central State Hospital for the Colored Insane.

Although Judah may not have deserved the diagnosis — she was discharged within two years — her case was by no means unique. In the decades following the Civil War, the number of African Americans committed to asylums in the South increased significantly. By some accounts, the number of “colored insane” in the United States rose ten-fold from 1850 to 1890.

The cause of this apparent upsurge in mental instability was, prominent white Southern psychiatrists of the day claimed, that African Americans were by nature “unsuitable for freedom.”

Judith Weisenfeld, a historian of religion at Princeton, has been tracing the stories of African Americans like Judah and others declared insane over the century following Emancipation. Weisenfeld’s research tracks the parallel rise in psychiatry as a field of science and the rise in the discipline’s racialized theories about African Americans, theories that helped fuel continued subjugation after the end of slavery. Her work reveals that racialized theories persisted among influential white psychiatrists well into the 20th century. What is more, our national conversation about the cause of racial disparities in COVID-19 victims suggest that these theories likely influence us still.