Health and Homelessness in Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s: My hometown of Richmond, Virginia is a city anchored to its past by bronze and marble Confederate shrines of memory, by an undying devotion to the cult of the Lost Cause. I was born and raised in the furrowed, relic-strewn Civil War battlefields on the city’s tattered eastern edge. A captive of its public schools, I was taught official Virginia history from textbooks approved by the First Families of Virginia. But I came to understand the shadowed history of my state by caring for its homeless outcasts.
These lessons began while I was in nursing school in the early 1980s. The modern hospital of the Medical College of Virginia curled around the former White House of the Confederacy like a lover. My clinical rotations were nearby in the crumbling brick former Colored Only hospital, which then housed indigent and homeless patients, as well as prisoners. Most of these patients were black, so I called it (to myself) the Almost Colored Only Hospital. The prisoners, shackled to their beds and accompanied by brown-clad armed guards, were from the State Penitentiary located across town. One of my patients was a Death Row inmate. When I spoon-fed him his medications, I was simultaneously afraid for my own safety and ashamed of being an accomplice to murder. I knew I was nursing him back to health only to return him so he could be killed by the state. I also knew this was not something I could discuss with my oh-so-white clinical nursing instructor. Racism was never addressed in nursing school.
One evening in 1985, during my final year of nursing school, I was on Belvidere Street driving home from a clinical day on the south side of Richmond. At a stoplight I found myself surrounded by a crowd of scruffy white men. Some of them thrust hand-lettered cardboard signs towards my car, and chanted, “Kill the N—er!” as I drove past the Virginia State Penitentiary. On the other side of Spring Street stood a smaller crowd of people holding lit candles and singing hymns. I had been following the local news, so I knew what the protests were about. I just didn’t know they would spill out into the street—that I would be forced to see and hear them. I also didn’t realize how racist and hate-filled they’d be. That part was politely–conveniently– left out of local news.
That evening, June 25th, 1985, Virginia electrocuted Morris Mason, a thirty-two-year-old black man from the isolated, rural Eastern Shore of Virginia. Mr. Mason admitted to killing a white woman, waived his right to a trial, and was sentenced to death by a white judge. With an IQ of sixty-six, Morris Mason had the mental functioning of an eight year old. He also had paranoid schizophrenia, diagnosed during a brief stint in the Army. He’d been unable to get treatment after he was discharged. So Virginia was executing a mentally retarded and mentally ill man who had never stood trial for murder.
Virginia holds the dubious distinction of being the state with the most executions in its history, and maintains the highest per capita rate of executions in the country. Those executed in Virginia—as elsewhere in the South—are disproportionately poor and black, and typically have been charged by white judges with murder of white people.
The Richmond Street Center was located in the armpit of town, near the impoverished and racist all-white Oregon Hill, and across the Downtown Expressway from the State Penitentiary. During my years working at the Street Center, four more men were executed next door—one every year—usually during the hottest part of summer. All of the men were killed at night by electrocution with two 2,200-watt surges of electricity. Most of the men were killed in the months leading up to local elections. Politicians used the executions as evidence of being tough on crime. The death penalty did nothing to deter crime: Richmond continued to have one of the highest murder rates in the country. Murder rates everywhere in the world are directly linked with socio-economic and racial inequities–as well as to access to handguns.
Before the executions, my patients would joke about how the lights would dim in the area around the State Pen when anyone was electrocuted. They also teased me about the chair I had in my office. It was a 1930s era white enameled iron exam chair, donated by owners of an employee’s clinic at a Richmond tobacco processing plant that had recently closed. The arms of the chair swiveled. It had a padded, adjustable metal clamp headrest. The chair had been designed for ear, nose and throat exams. I had it in my office because it was handy to use for taking vital signs and for blood draws. Patients would often sit in it, place their heads back in the metal headrest, flap the chair arms back and forth, and call it Old Sparky. It was mostly white men who joked about the executions. Sometimes the Street Center took on a carnival atmosphere in the days before an execution. I chalked that up to remnants of racism and to the collective memory of lynchings.
Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was an anti-miscegenation law spearheaded by Dr. Walter Plecker, a white supremacist male physician and public health professional, who was head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, a division of the Virginia State Board of Health. The law mandated that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, with babies sorted into one of two categories: white or colored (black or American Indian or anything else non-white), following the one-drop rule. They added the ‘Pocahontas Exception’ since many of Virginia’s first families claimed descent from her—so Virginians could be white if they had no more than 1/16th American Indian blood. The Racial Integrity Act wasn’t overturned until 1967.
When I think about my hometown of Richmond, Virginia (and when I revisit the city as I did this week), it makes me sad—and angry—that it continues to have the worst health statistics of any place in Virginia. The population is majority African American, and it has wide income inequities, along with all the social ills that accompany it, including homelessness. While Virginia ranks in the top ten nationally for per capita income, it has one of the lowest minimum wages and one of the worst Medicaid and state children’s health insurance coverage rates in the country. The Republican-controlled General Assembly has continued to block efforts to add ACA/healthcare reform Medicaid Expansion services (see NYT article linked below). Virginia ranks towards the bottom nationally in provision of mental health care services. Virginia has a deeply rooted history of bias against mental illness, mental retardation and developmental delay. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, Virginia’s politicians were pressured to work towards improving the state’s mental health system, but they have a long way to go. They also have a long way to go in acknowledging and redressing the deep wounds of institutionalized racism.
- “After First Plan is Blocked, Virginia Governor Reduces Medicaid Expansion Goals” by Trip Gabriel, NYT, September 8, 2014.
- For a national perspective, read this recent and excellent NYT op-ed essay by Emory University history professor Daniel LaChance. “What Will Doom the Death Penalty: Capital Punishment, Another Failed Government Program?” September 8, 2014.
- For a deeply moving and informative (and now historical) book about the death penalty in the South, read this book by a childhood friend of mine, Joseph (Joe) Ingle, Last Rights: 13 Fatal Encounters with the State’s Justice, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1990. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Joe has spent his life (and ministry) in advocating for an end to the death penalty, which he calls a “racist charade.”