WEST COLUMBIA, W.Va. — William Faulker once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For Lakin Hospital and the former Lakin Industrial School, the past has never really gone away, though some might argue it has been forgotten.
T.G. Nutter, Harry Capehart and T.J. Coleman were legislators in West Virginia who were responsible for the creation of the facilities, along with others that were established for, and run by, African-Americans in an age of segregation, evident by the official names of the aforementioned: “The Lakin Industrial School For Colored Boys” and “The Lakin Hospital for the Colored Insane.” Both facilities received state funding during the era of segregation, including similar facilities: the “West Virginia Industrial Home for Colored Girls” in Huntington, W.Va., and the “West Virginia Colored Deaf and Blind School” in Institute, W.Va.
Founded by an act of the West Virginia Legislature in 1919, Lakin Hospital opened its doors on Feb. 1, 1926, with a purpose of, “the reception and treatment of blacks suffering from mental and nervous disorders.” The hospital, served patients from across the state. Although the institution’s original name reflected the era of segregation, it was a nontraditional facility with an all African American staff, including administrators, and was one of what is believed to be only two all African American mental health facilities east of the Mississippi River.
The “Lakin State Hospital for the Colored Insane” hasn’t existed in years, nor has “Lakin State Hospital,” as it became known to locals in the more recent past. The facility began making the transition from psychiatric to nursing care in the late 1970s, achieving its intermediate care facility status in 1984 which means it could provide nursing care to adults and adults of all races. In fact, there are very few reminders of the old hospital on the grounds — memories not withstanding.
The industrial school was in operation from 1924 until 1956. A brief description of the school appears in the book “West Virginia In History, Life, Literature and Industry,” by Morris Purdy Shawkey and was published in 1928. It describes the school as being “designed for delinquent boys who have not acquired violent habits and provides for such boys the care and training necessary to convert them to good citizenship. Large emphasis is placed upon work for which the farm and the shops provide useful and well adapted tasks in abundance.”
The boys who were sent to the school were also known to participate in musical programs at least once or twice a year which were open to the public and put on for families in nearby towns like Clifton, West Columbia and Mason, W.Va. The late Sarah McCoy, formerly of West Columbia, recalled attending the shows which were, as she put it at the time, one of the few times African Americans and white people gathered together. The industrial school property eventually belonged to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture beginning in 1976 – it was inherited from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services. Then, in 2006, American Electric Power purchased the property and the building was demolished in November of that same year.
As previously reported, the school met its end much like “colored” drinking fountains and seats saved on the back of the bus – nothing remains of it but an empty field. Whether or not the school retains its urban legend status remains to be seen but at least years after its demolition and over 60 years after its closure, it remains a curiosity for the history books. Though torn down in November 2006, the school lives on across the Internet as one of Mason County’s (allegedly) most haunted sites. The old school still has quite the reputation when it comes to ghosthunters and websites devoted to West Virginia’s “most haunted” — it appears to have a shelf life when it comes to all things that go “bump” in the night. However, over the years, the school was often confused by those on the Internet with the hospital, located across W.Va. 62 and though some pieces of the old hospital remain, the majority of it was later torn down and the Lakin Nursing Home now stands on that site. Perhaps the “haunted tales” were escalated due to the confusion about which building some ghosthunters were examining – and to be fair, the school looked “foreboding” in its decay prior to its demolition.
Lakin Hospital itself has an interesting past, besides being a city within a city for African Americans at a time where housing and medical care were scarce. The late Edith Ross of Point Pleasant, W.Va., passed away earlier this year but was a longtime employee at the hospital from the time it was a segregated facility up to its integration and beyond. In an interview Ross did with the Point Pleasant Register several years ago, she said she was 18 years old when she left her home in Fayette County, W.Va. to find a job and ended up at Lakin Hospital as a psychiatric aide. Ross wasn’t just thrown into her job caring for patients — she received six months of training, earning a salary of $90 a month which included meals. In spite of, or because of, local housing being practically nonexistent for African Americans, all employees lived on the hospital grounds. Before employee dormitories were built in 1952, Ross’ room was just off of the patients’ ward, and at the time, she might awaken to find a patient walking the halls outside her room which she laughs about now but back then, found a little unsettling.
“You got used to it,” she laughed. “Course, it scared you to death sometimes.”
In 1952, male and female dormitories were built to house employees, including staff, administrators and doctors. With employees living on the grounds, Ross said if a coworker needed help with patients there was always someone around to do so, which also meant employees technically worked 24 hours, many of those hours without pay.
For all practical purposes, the patients had nowhere to go but Lakin, as did the staff. So, both made the best of their situations and coexisted. Ross said when she first arrived, many patients helped maintain the hospital by cleaning the buildings and working in the laundry.
“If it hadn’t been for the patients, that hospital would’ve never made it,” Ross said. “The patients cleaned that place up like a hotel.”
Patients also worked on Lakin’s farm which not only raised dairy cows, hogs and chickens, but grew vegetables used in the hospital’s cannery. At one time, Lakin had its own store and post office as well as beautician and barber services, shoe repair, a seamstress, minister, auto shop, pharmacy, medical lab and ambulance services. So, in essence, Lakin was its own self-sufficient city, and staff and patients didn’t have to go into town — because they were their own town.
This picture of self-sufficiency contradicts stereotypes of what living in a psychiatric hospital in the 1950s might’ve been like with images of patients locked away in padded rooms. Ross disagreed with these images being applied to what life was like at Lakin.
“We had some patients who were locked down to a point. There was just some where there wasn’t any hope for them,” Ross said. “But, a lot of the patients had a lot going for them.”
Larry Moore, of Mason, W.Va., also spoke with the Register a few years ago. Moore served as a social worker at Lakin from the late 1960s until 2004 and became not only an employee but historical advocate for the facility.
At the time of the interview, Moore described Lakin’s beginnings as unique, explaining, “At a time when the vast majority of psychiatric care for black Americans was markedly substandard, Lakin seems to have been a serious attempt to accomplish the ‘equal’ portion of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine. ‘Care’ in most other settings consisted of minimal service in inadequate facilities by white staff who were often highly prejudiced.”
As for Ross, she retired from Lakin Hospital in 1988 after she’d seen everything from lobotomies, to the introduction and benefits of psychotropic drugs, to patients being rezoned to other counties, to integration of a staff and resident population that went from predominately black to white, to psychiatric services phased out along with the adolescent care unit where she was a supervisor. Ross briefly left Lakin from 1972 to 1976 when she remarried, and when asked why she returned or better yet, why she stayed, she said, “Lakin was like family.”
These days, that statement is taken literally with Ross’ daughter Phyllis Penn having worked as Lakin Hospital’s switchboard operator for nearly 50 years now. Penn, a second generation employee, has been at the facility longer than her mother was.
As of Friday, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s West Virginia Highway Markers Database, states the plaque denoting the Lakin facilities, is officially missing. The inscription was “Lakin State Hospital County: Mason. Established in 1919 by an act of the Legislature. Opened for colored patients in 1926 and integrated in 1954. In 1957, the Hospital acquired the former Boys Industrial School. A rehabilitation center has since been added to the Hospital.”
Gone, but not forgotten.
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