Advocates seek to save history at Md. mental hospital for Blacks

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Crownsville State Hospital sits empty now, shuttered since July 2004. The rusting window grates that once held patients in keep trespassers out. As sordid as life was at the hospital, particularly for blacks, there is interest in retaining those lonely buildings and preserving the ornate murals, painted by Crownsville patients as art therapy, that still cover many walls and window panes.

A small group of former Crownsville employees, black leaders and historians is quietly monitoring deliberations over the empty facility, hoping this emblem of African American toil, artistry and suffering will not fall to the wrecking ball.

From wartime till the 1950s, Crownsville was the most crowded, understaffed mental hospital in Maryland. Children sometimes slept two to a bed, or on mattresses on the floor. Photographs from the era show patients sprawled on the concrete floor for lack of chairs. People disappeared into Crownsville's back wards, sometimes for decades.

Alone among Maryland's mental hospitals, Crownsville housed the criminally insane, the mentally ill and retarded, adults and children along with drunks and people with syphilis and tuberculosis, all on one campus. Adults and children dwelled in the same wards.

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