Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Least of These: The Mentally Ill and the Price of Texas Conservatism after World War II

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe how the mentally ill in Texas in the late 1940s paid a heavy price for decades of conservative politics in Texas.

Gov. Beauford Jester died suddenly from a heart attack while riding a passenger train on July 11, 1949. It fell to Lt. Gov. Allan Shivers to call a special session to address funding for state hospitals and special schools. The highly conservative Shivers still recognized the need to improve conditions at the state hospitals, famously saying that Texas was “first in oil, forty-eighth in mental hospitals; first in cotton, worst in tuberculosis; first in raising goats, last in caring for state wards.”

The results of former Gov. Coke Stevenson’s earlier draconian fiscal policies were clearest at the state’s mental institutions. In 1941 the state housed 1,000 mental patients in jails due to lack of hospital space. “The State Board of Control set about to clean up this shameful condition with the tools at hand,” the Austin American Statesman reported. “The mentally ill were removed from jails and stacked in double-deck beds. When there were not enough of these to go around, porches, basements and halls were utilized. When that emergency space ran out, pallets and mattresses were spread on the floor.”

Eight years later, by the time of Manford’s speakership, in the state’s six mental institutions and one whites-only epileptic hospital, the Statesman said, one could find a “doctor at Austin treating 400 patients daily, the ward attendant at San Antonio putting patients to sleep on floors when beds are lacking, or the cook at Terrell feeding a patient for 3 cents a day.”

One doctor complained to the Statesman that Texas’ mental health care system had “degenerated into . . . penitentiaries and an old folks home.” At the hospital in Big Springs, doctors crammed patients into “teeming cages.” Patients were kept under “lock and key because there are not enough guards.” Facilities simply warehoused the mentally ill to keep them off the streets. At the epileptic ward in San Antonio, the 56 patients slept on “[s]traw mattresses soaked in human filth,” walked on “a bare cement floor sticky with saliva,” and viewed the world through barred windows.

Because of limited space in the Austin State Hospital, patients were forced to watch their peers undergo electro-shock therapy and to see the violent contortions such patients undergo, sometimes before they received such treatment themselves. Such treatments were grueling not only to both the electro-shock recipients. Experienced psychiatrists and attendants became ill watching the seizures electro-shock patients underwent, Statesman reporter J.P. Porter noted. “It is possible that the mental stress occasioned by witnessing the shock can be so harmful that it will outweigh any beneficial results of therapy.”

A 19-year veteran supervisor at one ward suggested that, “[t]he jails might not be so bad [for the inmates.] At least the patients would get a bed, two decent meals a day, and individual attention. Patients are lucky here if they get one of the three.” Allan Shivers tapped Claud Gilmer to head the new State Board of Hospitals and Special Schools and Gilmer put together a package of “temporary” taxes that quietly became permanent revenue streams to upgrade the primitive mental health care system. The state raised business taxes and hiked cigarette taxes by 1 percent. Shivers made an emotional appeal for the legislation.

“I have seen epileptics eating in bathrooms for lack of dining space,” the new governor said. “I saw 77 aged and mentally ill women locked up in a condemned building. I saw 400 mentally defective children and 800 seniles housed in prisoner-of-war shacks, constructed mostly of plywood and tarpaper. I saw dilapidated non-fireproof buildings without fire escapes, with hundreds of mentally ill persons locked in them . . .”

It took just 20 days of the 30-day special session for the Legislature to impose a 10 percent increase in business taxes in addition to the added levy on cigarettes. The Gilmer-Aikin laws and the new state commission for mental health mark Texas’ first serious effort since Reconstruction to take responsibility attending to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.

The reform efforts of 1949 - modernizing the school system, upgrading hospitals and increased care for the disabled - shared a common fatal flaw. The state House refused to tax wealth and instead depended on revenues from sales and other regressive taxes that hit lower-income people hardest. The 1949 Legislature did not come close to providing adequate funding for education or for mental health care.

Jimmy Turman, native of the East Texas town of Gober and future House speaker, first won a seat in the Texas House in 1954. Named to the Appropriations Committee, Turman traveled with other subcommittee members assigned to oversee Texas’ eleemosynary institutions, including mental health hospitals. In a March 23, 2004 interview, Dr. Turman recalled the horror he felt when he saw conditions at the care facilities in 1955.

I went to the State School in Austin there on Guadalupe [Street]. . . They had 200 men in one room. They were hosing them off. They were mental patients, they’d lost their capacities, and there they were in cages . . . [P]eople . . . working there . . . were paid . . . around $1,900 a year [for] their basic salary [about $12,700 to $13,400, in today’s dollars] . . . I couldn’t help them any other way, except . . . better salaries for those people . . .

Whatever shortcomings the 51st Legislature had, three stars emerged who would set the tone at the statehouse in the 1950s. Gov. Shivers quickly displayed a mastery of realpolitik shared by so many conservatives of the 1950s. He cultivated establishment support for increased expenditures on education, old age pensions, and other progressive programs, but he avoided taxing energy companies’ exploding profits in the 1950s.

At the same time he shifted the tax burden to consumers, particularly through cigarette taxes. It was not until after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that Shivers joined other southern governors and legislators in what became known as the “massive resistance” movement to integration of public schools. His decision to support segregation also led to his alienation toward other social and economic reforms during his later years as governor. Furthermore, Shivers seized the issue to counter rising criticism of corruption within his administration, lack of action against the prolonged drought gripping the state, and his decision to run for an unprecedented third term as governor in his own right.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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