Teaching the Layered Histories of the Mount Vernon Barracks

Teaching the Layered Histories of the Mount Vernon Barracks

During its 180-odd years of operation, Mount Vernon Barracks in south Alabama was home to thousands of people, including white soldiers, Apache prisoners, and Black psychiatric patients. It was an arsenal, a Confederate base, a U.S. Army outpost, a detention site for yellow fever victims, and a psychiatric facility. Shuttered and hastily abandoned on Halloween in 2012, its buildings are now crumbling, its edifices succumbing to vegetation, and the voices of its inhabitants largely silenced and forgotten. Yet the stories of the men, women, and children who lived and died at this place shed light on some of the most important historical phenomena of the late 19th and early 20th-century United States—many of which we don’t usually consider together: federal Indian policy, public health crises, and Jim Crow segregation. It is a place layered with meanings and resonances. Peeling back those layers can illuminate how deeply enmeshed our histories—and subfields—truly are. And it could be a phenomenal site from which to teach and learn. As philosopher Edward Casey noted, “Just as there are no places without the bodies that sustain and vivify them, so there are no lived bodies without the places they inhabit and traverse.”[1]

View of the guard tower at Mount Vernon Barracks, 1892. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History.

In 1886, the U.S. Army imprisoned nearly 400 Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache men, women, and children, following more than two decades of resistance to the invasion of their western homelands. Congress passed legislation preventing the Apaches’ relocation to any region west of the Mississippi River and logic dictated that they be interned at a military installation, preferably in an area devoid of other Indian people who might be corrupted by their influence.[2] An Army base in Alabama, a place presumably (but not actually) emptied of Native Americans since Indian removal, emerged as a reasonable location to imprison and reform the Apaches. The prisoners of war—as they were uniformly labelled—were sent by train to the U.S. South. More prisoners, including Geronimo, joined them the following year just north of Mobile at Mount Vernon Barracks, originally constructed in the 1830s. They would be prisoners of war for twenty-seven years.

While the incarcerated families struggled to acclimate to the humidity and mosquitos of lower Alabama, Army officials sent three dozen of the Apache children to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. In the 1880s, federal Indian policies were shifting away from armed conflict and towards aggressive assimilationist reforms, including the institutionalization of Indian children. Although a school was later established on site at Mount Vernon, reformers strongly advocated detaching Indian children from their parents and sending them to residential boarding schools. Carlisle was a former military base turned boarding school run by Captain Richard H. Pratt, who had formerly overseen Native prisoners of war in Florida. Pratt believed that incarcerated Indians could and should be “rehabilitated” through education and military-like discipline and he brought those techniques to the project of detribalizing Native youth. As historian Margaret Jacobs notes, “indigenous child removal” became a central part of the settler colonial project and was seen as essential to finally severing Indian ties (and claims) to their lands.[3] These policies were emotionally eviscerating. Mount Vernon post surgeon Walter Reed (yes, that Walter Reed) observed of the Apache parents: “Their grief over this compulsory separation has been genuine and unabating.”[4]

View of the guard tower at Searcy Hospital today. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020

The deportation, incarceration, and forced separation the Apaches experienced was made worse by unhealthy conditions at Mount Vernon Barracks, which were in turn exacerbated by meager rations and malnutrition. Some of the prisoners, along with many of the white soldiers stationed at the base, sought relief from their suffering in the bootlegged liquor that flowed through the piney woods surrounding the barracks. Jim Crow policies that curtailed employment opportunities for African Americans ensured that at least some of the liquor purveyors supplying Mount Vernon were Black Alabamians. Others were descendants of local Indians who had escaped removal during the 1830s and lived in the vicinity.[5] The community known today as the MOWA Choctaws was largely invisible to local whites during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part because of the intersection of federal Indian policy and Jim Crow segregation. Unrecognized by the federal government as Indians, ancestors of today’s MOWAs struggled to articulate their indigeneity to outsiders. The Black-white racial binary, presumptions that all the real Indians had been removed to or were from the West (like the Apache prisoners nearby), and abject poverty meant that the Choctaws of southwest Alabama lived on several margins at once.[6]

The cemetery at Searcy Hospital/Mount Vernon Barracks. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020.

When the Apache prisoners of war were forced from Mount Vernon to their new prison at Fort Sill in 1894, the fate of the Alabama site was unclear. State politicians debated making it a full-fledged penitentiary, an orphanage, or a reform school, institutions that bore marked similarity to one another as part of what might be called a penal-pedagogic complex.[7] Ultimately, the site became the “Mount Vernon Insane Hospital” for Blacks; the walls, guard tower, and barred gates of the former barracks remained. Like other psychiatric facilities of the era, the hospital functioned much like a prison and often much worse. The twin plagues of disease and malnutrition that had deepened the Apache sorrow during their detention also afflicted Black patients at the newly established facility. In fact, the institution (renamed Searcy Hospital in 1919) played an important role in the identification of pellagra then rampant among African Americans and poor whites across the South.[8]

After Searcy was integrated in 1969, conditions improved but it remained a locus of controversy and a site of hardship and heartache for the people who lived there. Like other mental hospitals in Alabama, it was functionally a “warehouse” for patients who received little care and lots of medication.[9] Chronically underfunded and understaffed, Searcy Hospital was a place where many were involuntarily committed through “noncriminal proceedings,” often detained on dubious pretense, denied constitutional protections, and incarcerated indefinitely. Many, many people lived until they died at Searcy. Hidden away in one heavily wooded corner of the site is a sprawl of gravesites with small stone or metal markers, engraved only with numbers, no names. No records linking the numbers of the buried to their names or identities have yet been located.

A gravesite in the cemetery at Searcy Hospital/Mount Vernon Barracks. Photograph taken by the author, January 2020.

Mount Vernon Barracks is a place so densely laden with human experience that it fairly sags under its own historical weight. The spread of the federal military apparatus, Indian dispossession and assimilation, the growth of the carceral nation-state, disease and public health, Jim Crow segregation, race and mental illness, post-Civil Rights southern politics… all of these topics can be explored by inhabiting and traversing this site, even if only in our minds. It has inspired me to think of other such sites and how they might reanimate my teaching. Some of these, like Castillo San Marcos/Fort Marion and Alcatraz Island, share aspects of Mount Vernon’s history but are better preserved and protected. Others, like the Columbian Harmony Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground once located in Washington, D.C. and now scattered along the Potomac riverside in Virginia and Maryland, are only now resurfacing in our historical consciousness.[10] As Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday once wrote with characteristic grace, “The events of one’s life take place, take place.”[11] Where can those places take us?




[1] Edward S. Casey, “How to get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena,” in Senses of Place, ed. Steven Feld and Keith Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1996), 24.

[2] John Anthony Turcheneske, Jr., The Chiricahua Apache Prisoners of War: Fort Sill 1894-1914 (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997), 8-13.

[3] Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 4, 25-28. Jacobs calculates that Pratt alone “institutionalized” 4,903 Indian children at Carlisle. Nearly 500 more were taken to Hampton Institute in Virginia.

[4] Walter Reed, “Geronimo and His Warriors in Captivity,” The Illustrated American, Vol. III, No. 26, August 16, 1890 (New York: George Kirchner & Co, 1890), 235.

[5] [Letter] William Sinclair, Mount Vernon Barracks, Ala. August 8, 1887 [to] Assist. Adjutant General, Governors Island, N.Y., 69. NARA, RG 393, Pt. 3, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920, Records of Posts, Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama; Jacqueline Matte, They Say the Wind is Red, 77, 112; Jerry Davis notes that some prominent local whites were also involved in bootlegging and stemming the supply of liquor to the barracks (for prisoners and soldiers alike) was a major preoccupation of post commanders. Davis, “Apache Prisoners of War,” 256-257. See also Laurence, Daughter of the Regiment, 108, 172 n.1.

[6] Malinda Maynor Lowery’s study of the Lumbee experience in North Carolina during Jim Crow shows that in at least some instances, southern Indian groups strategically adopted their policies of segregation to maintain the integrity of their Native identity, adopting and adapting ideologies of white supremacy in so doing. See Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[7] Anne Laura Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politices of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies,” Journal of American History 88:3 (December 2001): 850.

[8] Harry Marks, “Epidemiologists Explain Pellagra: Gender, Race, and Political Economy in the Work of Edgar Sydenstricker,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58:1 (JANUARY 2003): 38.

[9] Charles S. Prigmore and Paul R. Davis, “Wyatt v. Stickney: Rights of the Committed,” Social Work 18:4 (JULY 1973): 11.

[10] Gregory S. Schneider, “A Virginia state senator found headstones on his property. It brought to light a historic injustice in D.C.,” Washington Post, Oct. 25, 2020. Accessed online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/headstones-black-cemetery-potomac-river/2020/10/25/3586f0d4-0d7a-11eb-8074-0e943a91bf08_story.html

[11] N. Scott Momaday, The Names: A Memoir (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 142.

Angela Pulley Hudson

Angela Pulley Hudson is professor of history at Texas A&M University. Her most recent book is Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians (2015).

4 Replies to “Teaching the Layered Histories of the Mount Vernon Barracks”

  1. An irony of the story involving Walter Reed M.D. – he and his wife Emilie maintained the services of a “nanny” for two Reed children for about 12 years, on the western frontier, during “Indian Wars” – an Apache child of 4-5 years saved from severe burns she received in a camp raid at Fort Apache. She was a teen in Reed’s service, perhaps the only Apache at Mount Vernon Barracks not considered a Prisoner of War because of her relationship with the Reeds. She became pregnant (father unknown) and was separated and sent (details nil) from Mt. Vernon Barracks to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in PA, where 5 years after her admission there, in 1891 she died of tuberculosis in 1895 at 24 yrs. –Perhaps a metaphor for the failure of America’s experiment with assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Her Apache name is unknown; her parents were killed when she was burned in a teepee; no known relatives exist today; there is no known image of her—like an apparition or “Ghost” named by the Reeds, “Susie”. The events of Susie’s life took place. As Angela Hudson poses: “Where can those places take us.?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.