Once Upon A Park

In Feature Stories, October 2018 by Jane Porter1 Comment

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In an early winter snowstorm in December of 1930, a baby girl, weighing just a pound and a half, was born in the red brick Royster building on the campus of Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Hospital.

The baby, Louise Humphrey (née Grant), survived in an incubator and was the first baby born on the campus to hospital employees. Growing up, Louise spent time on the property, playing, helping out and interacting with patients, while her father, Jimmy, worked on the grounds as an electrician.

“We would go to square dances on Friday night, movies on Sunday,” Louise recalls. “They put patients on big old farm trucks, standing up, and we would go to the State Fair. They would have a barbecue in the fall, and patients and employees ate together. Daddy always had his [patient] work crew with him, so they were just like anybody else to me.”

Louise met her future husband, Melvin, at Dix as a teenager in the ‘40s. Melvin worked as a patient ward supervisor. The couple lived together in an apartment in the Williams Hall dorm, and then in houses built on the campus for a decade after they married in 1950.

The Humphreys’ extraordinary memories of their time as part of the Dix Hospital community are featured in an exhibit about the Dix property at the City of Raleigh Museum, opening this month. From Plantation to Park: The Story of Dix Hill explores the property’s history, from Native American settlement, to its use as a plantation, to the duration of its time as a campus for the insane asylum, or mental health hospital, that most folks in Raleigh now know it for. The exhibit also looks to the future, as Raleigh residents and city officials grapple with the land’s complex legacy in planning for the property’s eventual use as the nation’s next great city park.

“It is such a rare opportunity for [a city] to have this huge, massive, interesting park out by its doorstep, with such a complex and conflicted history, but with such a bright future,” says Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh Museum, of the 308-acre parcel of land that the city purchased from the state in 2015 for $52 million. “Thank goodness Raleigh could afford it.”

“There are groups of people throughout the community who are aware of the history and legacy of Dix Park and are keenly interested in honoring it,” says Kate Pearce, a City administrator who is spearheading planning efforts for the future of the property. “How do we share the story of the land moving forward?”

Pearce and others have a few tools at their disposal. The Dix Park Conservancy, a philanthropic, nonprofit partner to the City’s planning office has worked with groups such as NC Health News and the International Coalition of Sites of Consciousness to  document oral histories from those familiar with the site, and to work towards reconciliation and healing for people who experienced trauma there or whose relatives and ancestors did. The conservancy is also funding work at UNC Chapel Hill, where students and faculty are painstakingly documenting discoveries around the architecture of the hospital, as well as records from patients and employees associated with Dix.

“We want to tell all sides of the story, not just the polite ones,” Pearce says.


From Plantation to Park begins with an exploration of the earliest human occupation of the land. It delves into European land grants in Raleigh in the mid-1700s, following the first European family, the Hunters, to own the property, which later became known as the Spring Hill Plantation. Theophilus Hunter, a Revolutionary War officer and a founding father of Raleigh, is buried on the property in the county’s oldest marked grave. The Spring Hill house, a plantation home dating back to 1816, still sits on land owned by NC State University, adjacent to the Dix campus.

Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the pioneering mental health activist Dorothea Dix convinced North Carolina state Senator James C. Dobbins to purchase the plantation land on behalf of the state, in order to build a hospital to house people who were considered mentally ill or insane. Architect Alexander J. Davis designed a facility that integrated the land’s abundant natural beauty into the fabric of the buildings; the North Carolina Lunatic Asylum opened its doors to its first patient, a veteran of the war with Mexico, in 1856.

That patient’s admitting records, as well as records for many others who stayed at the Dix hospital, were housed in North Carolina’s state archives until Robert Allen, an American studies professor at UNC and director of the university’s Community Histories Workshop, came across them. For the past two years, Allen and his team of student researchers have photographed thousands of patients’ records, contained in ledgers, and documenting who they were, when they were admitted and what they were being treated for, up to 1917 (patient records exist up to the 1990s, but are under a 100-year embargo, due to patient privacy laws). The researchers’ goal is to compile the records into “Prospect,” a first-of-its-kind digital database that allows users to see patient logs over time and to filter them based on different data sets.

The patient records provide a largely unprecedented glimpse into the earliest history of psychiatric treatment in the United States, as well as into American, and especially Southern, history. The hospital was the first state institution to be forcibly integrated following the Civil War (though Cherry Hill Hospital opened exclusively for black patients in Goldsboro in 1880). Confederate soldiers, who passed time fraternizing with patients on the Dix grounds while defending the state capitol, would later find themselves hospitalized there, suffering from what we now know to be PTSD.

Accordingly, fascinating patient case studies have emerged from handwritten records contained in dozens of ledgers.

The first African American patients admitted to the asylum were recorded using a first name only, and a designator, “African,” following the name in parentheses. For one such patient, a former slave, “emancipation” is written to be the cause of his mental troubles, a conjectural diagnosis from an almost certainly white doctor.

Allen W. Wooten, a former state lawmaker from Lenoir, lost his plantation and both of his sons to the Civil War. He was admitted to Dix hospital in May of 1865. Wooten appeared homicidal, according to his admitting record, and he went on a hunger strike and died the very next month. In Wooten’s record, the cause of his illness states simply “The War.”

Anna Cameron Kirkland, the first female patient admitted to Dix and a relative of North Carolina’s prominent Cameron family, received treatment at the hospital for 33 years, following the death of her husband. Lucas Kelley, a doctorate student in the Community Histories Workshop, has pieced together information about Cameron Kirkland from letters between her and her family members, and between family members writing about her to one another; collectively, they form a narrative of her life and show the struggles the family endured in trying to care for her.

“We have to think about our ethical obligations in how we deploy this extraordinary database,” Allen says. “Just because this material is available and accessible doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be the instruments for making it accessible in such a public way as putting it online.” Though the team hasn’t formally decided how exactly the public will be able to use Prospect once it is complete, the researchers hope the records will influence the Dix Park planning process.

“Devoting ourselves to the personal stories of how people got to Dorothea Dix, we found it is very humanizing,” says Sarah Almond, a graduate research fellow at the Community Histories Workshop. “It creates a very different perspective into the hospital than a lot of people are typically walking around thinking about.”


This humanizing perspective, in Almond’s words, is one that the Humphreys share.

Though the campus existed, for a time, as a city within a city, Melvin and Louise remember it as an open, welcoming place where patients were well cared for, free to work and roam the grounds if they were able and where staff and volunteers happily interacted with them.

“The outsiders were frightened of them, but those people were just like you and I,” Louise says. “People thought they sat in the buildings in chairs, but they were kept as active as you can keep them. In the early days, they were still kept busy.”

Melvin started his career at Dix Hospital as the assistant night supervisor of the male ward in 1948 and, having risen through the ranks to become director of occupational therapy, left the hospital a little more than 30 years later. He remembers patients helping out with laundry, cooking, farming, gardening and feeding the coal-fired power plant. He remembers when he and a volunteer with the hospital’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program built a nine-hole, indoor miniature golf course in the Dix recreation room for patients who weren’t well enough to go outside; having the hospital located in the city was, it seems, good for Raleigh residents, too, and former employees and volunteers still get together for Dix Hospital reunions.

“Volunteers held parties, events and Christmas celebrations for patients,” Melvin recalls. “There was a volunteer coordinator [on the hospital staff], because lots of people volunteered.”

After labor laws mandated that patients weren’t allowed to work, they received occupational therapy, including knitting, sewing and embroidery instruction for the women patients, and ceramics, photography, leather and woodworking for the men. There were basketball courts, tennis courts and a baseball diamond, as well as acres upon acres of gardens and open space.

Melvin says he left his job at Dix Hospital in 1979 when “a lot of things happened that I did not agree with,” including housing patients with different needs together, which contributed to patient abuses and sometimes deaths.

Indeed, as the 20th century wore on, the asylum model began to change, as did views around mental health, and the stigma surrounding people with mental illness started to fade. With advancements in the efficacy of medications and emphases on social and environmental factors as the causes of mental illness, treatment for patients shifted from institutionalization in large state hospitals to patients receiving care in group homes and community clinics.

Patient populations at Dorothea Dix Hospital dwindled and the hospital closed its doors in 2012. Today, many of the 82 buildings on the campus seem frozen in time; hospital walls are still adorned with patient artwork, medication charts are marked out on whiteboards, and wheelchairs and other equipment line the halls.

Though mental illnesses and conditions and their causes are better understood today than they were in the past, mental health advocates and experts say we haven’t, as a society, necessarily become better at treating some of the people afflicted by them. With the closing of most of the nation’s large, economically inefficient state asylums and a shift to the community care model, problems such as homelessness and substance abuse have seen a resurgence. People with mental illnesses often are absorbed into the criminal justice system and incarcerated, while communities fail to give people the care they need, and local governments fail to fund mental healthcare services adequately.

The Humphreys are excited about the future Dix Park, and what it will mean for future generations living in Raleigh, they say, but they and many others feel sadness that there isn’t better care for the state’s residents who struggle with mental illness. For these advocates, there’s little that compares to the healing properties that nature provided patients on Dix Hill.

“People are not being cared for in the right ways that they should be,” Melvin says. “If you gun down a man going berserk out there because he fights an officer … We didn’t do that in the hospital, and we had those [dangerous] kinds of events.”

“The emphasis on interaction [with patients] had a lot to do with the curative part of things,” Louise says. “It is beautiful over there. Every season is gorgeous.”


There may not be a modern solution for how to treat people with mental illnesses at the ready, but, as surely as the bones of former patients rest in the cemetery on Dix Hill and old and contemporary buildings dot the land, memories and stories of the place persist in the public’s consciousness. In planning for Dix Park, researchers, city officials and engaged residents must think in ways that respectfully honor the property’s history as a plantation, and its legacy as a mental health treatment center.

From Plantation to Park provides a blueprint of how this can be done, foregoing caricatures of the mentally ill for thoughtful, engaging components designed to empathetically educate visitors about the patient experience. Guests can experiment with art therapy, or talk about their impressions of, or experiences with, Dix Hospital in a recording booth, in order to build on an already extensive oral history. They can look at artifacts from the hospital, such as a strait jacket and a choir robe, relics that show the whole range of how patients lived. They can even interactively explore the history of the grounds and buildings.

“Sometimes history is not far in the rearview mirror,” says Dollar, the COR museum director of the need to treat the legacy of Dix Hill with sensitivity. “One of the things we try to get across is, how much does the past shape the future? How do you come to grips with it knowing that the site had been a place of pain in the past, and how do you make peace with it?”

Pearce, the Dix Park planner, says there will be some sort of museum on the future park’s property, but wonders, beyond the traditional museum model, if there’s there a way to continue the idea of healing through reconnection to nature.

“How do we use the evolution of the landscape to tell the story of the history and legacy of place?” she asks.

Now is the time to decide.

Residents currently are submitting their ideas for the park online and at public meetings; the Dix Park Master Plan is scheduled for review by the City Council next spring. As residents of Raleigh and North Carolina, we’re beginning to reflect on a place with an extraordinary history that is very much a part of the fabric of the city, and the state—and we’re trying, in our own different and intensely personal ways, to reckon with a past that will always be with us.

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