Common Heritage

African American Acitivism

In December 1842, the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum opened its doors, becoming the first psychiatric hospital in the state. Over its 178-year history, the institution has operated as the Georgia State Sanitarium, Milledgeville State Hospital, and Central State Hospital (CSH). From the beginning, the sanitarium exploited African American labor. Initially, this was through the existing aberration of enslaved servitude. Post-Civil War, African American labor was continually leveraged to the greatest extent with little concern for quality of life. Much of the physical labor for making improvements to the campus and tending the farm fields was undertaken by African American patients. African American attendants were responsible for caring for the African American patients, male and female. Throughout the early and mid-20th Century, African American employees faced discriminatory hiring and promotion practices at the hospital.

Image: Postcard displaying the Main Building, Georgia State Sanitarium, Milledgeville, Ga, circa 1910. Georgia College Special Collections.

Ruth Hartley Mosley, born Ruth Price in Savannah, Georgia in 1886, was a trailblazer for African American women. After attending high school in Savannah, Price entered and completed a nurse training seminar in Concord, North Carolina. From there, Price conducted her clinical training at Providence Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. In 1910, Price returned to Georgia and secured employment at the Georgia State Sanitarium, in Milledgeville; and that same year, at the age of 24, Price was appointed the head nurse of the “Colored” Female Department at the sanitarium. Price was the first African American woman to achieve a position of this stature at the sanitarium. Upon her marriage in 1917, she leaves the sanitarium and undertakes and completes training to become a licensed mortician. She and her husband operated a funeral home in Macon, Georgia for over two decades. In 1938, she would return to nursing with the Bibb County Health Department and in the Bibb County Schools.  

Image: Mrs. Ruth Hartley Mosley (standing on left) and nursing classmates, circa 1910. Retrieved from:

On September 23, 1977, three African Americans, Crawford Finley, James White, and Sherard Kennedy, filed a discrimination lawsuit against Central State Hospital. The plaintiffs charged the hospital with racially discriminatory hiring and promotion practices. They demanded retroactive pay and the seniority in position due them, filing an additional motion to prevent CSH from hiring or promoting white employees until the case’s conclusion, which was approved by the court. The plaintiffs stated that the education and age requirements were stricter for African Americans than those afforded white applicants or employees and claimed the hospital affirmative action recruitment program was ineffective due to its lack of authority in implementing the responsibilities of the initiative.

Image: A group of employees, Central State Hospital, Milledgeville, Ga, circa 1972. David Payne Photograph Collection, Georgia College Special Collections.

In July 1978, Federal District Court Judge Wilbur Owens declared the case a class action suit, opening the lawsuit to all African American employees who resigned, retired, were terminated, or otherwise separated from employment on or after May 8, 1972. The number of plaintiffs quickly rose from the original three to approximately 2,000. From the community sprung the Committee for State Employee Rights, founded by Zelma Jarrettee and chaired by Geneva Taylor. The group met monthly to keep the African American employees informed of the status of the lawsuit and to provide education on the rights entitled to them as employees of CSH.

The committee, assisted by the Law Project in Atlanta, undertook negotiations with state attorneys to reach a settlement. A list of proposals was drawn up and presented to the state by the plaintiffs asking for an on-the-job training program to help African Americans receive promotions and upward mobility, a program to place African Americans in decision and policy-making positions above the level of ward leaders, a set of consistent rules applied systematically throughout the hospital, a functioning Affirmative Action Office, and a permanent grievance committee.

Image: Article on Central State Hospital discrimination case, Union Recorder, November 30, 1982. Georgia College Library

In January 1979, state attorneys turned down the proposals, effectively ending the settlement negotiations. Judge Owens was notified of the cessation of talks and set a trial date of July 23, 1979. The testimony of the plaintiffs uncovered what Judge Owen termed a buddy system, in which white supervisors favored white employees in the hiring and promotion process. In 1982, after five years, the plaintiffs scored a total victory. Judge Owen’s decision required CSH to settle with potential plaintiffs, which now numbered between 3,000 and 4,000 Milledgeville African Americans. The resulting financial settlement assisted in deterring future racially discriminatory practices at CSH and affected employment policies across all state organizations.

Image: Notice of court settlement in race discrimination suit against Central State Hospital and of Black employees’ rights to file claims for backpay, Union Recorder, circa 1982. Digitized during Common Heritage Community Harvest Event, March 07, 2020. Georgia College Special Collections.