Black celebrities, selfhood, and psychiatry in the civil rights era: The wiltwyck school for boys and the floyd patterson house

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Social History of Medicine


This paper contends that a color-blind psychologisation of black interiority constituted one way in which activists imagined African Americans as both fully human and deserving of equal citizenship during the long civil rights era. Between 1954 and 1964, the Wiltwyck School for Boys, a reform school with a predominantly black student body in Esopus, New York, expanded their therapeutic services into Manhattan, creating one of the US's first psychiatric aftercare programmes. Singer Harry Belafonte and boxing champion Floyd Patterson, two black culture heroes linked to the civil rights movement, lent their support as the Wiltwyck Board of Directors sought the funds needed to build a halfway home named in Patterson's honor. The public support of these black celebrity-Activists helped create the impression that the mental health of black children was a matter of civil rights import, underscoring the black psyche as both the very source of equality between the races and as a site where racial progress could be measured.

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