Cherry-picked history—Goldsboro, North Carolina

This is the fourth entry in my Twelve Days of Southern Spirits Series celebrating traditional ghost story telling over Christmas.  

Cherry Research Farm (formerly Cherry Hospital)
604 Farm Road
Goldsboro, North Carolina

Ghost stories pop up in unusual places. These stories are often so entwined with history that these tales and stories pop up in places that are often unexpected. Today’s example is a story that appears in Modern Farmer magazine. While its pages usually discuss practical subjects such as antibiotic use in chickens or soy production, an article about sustainable agriculture research in North Carolina piqued my interest. It seems that the haunted grounds of Cherry Hospital in North Carolina have become an agricultural research station since the hospital’s move to its new, urban facility.

Cherry Hospital Goldsboro North Carolina
An undated postcard of Cherry Hospital.

“You must have heard,” the agricultural scientist remarks in the article, “Cherry Hospital has a strange history.” The history of the hospital recalls the brutal treatment of the mentally ill, and even worse, the archaic views of race that persisted in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout the 19th century, states established facilities to deal with the mentally ill and those who stood apart from society. Mental illness encompassed people who thought beyond their social station, independent women, those with “unnatural sexual desires,” and masturbators; as well as the depressed, anxious, and those with more serious mental illnesses. During Reconstruction, many of these facilities were actively segregated and new facilities created for African-Americans. This is where Cherry Hospital was established.

The North Carolina Asylum for Colored Insane opened its doors in 1880. The facility operated specifically for African-Americans until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 when the Cherry Hospital—as it was renamed in 1959 for former governor R. Gregg Cherry—was forced to open its doors to all North Carolinians. Thousands of acres surrounding the hospital were cultivated by patients in what is now deemed “horticultural therapy.” These vast acres have been overseen by the state’s Department of Agriculture since 1974.

An undated postcard of Cherry Hospital.
An undated postcard of Cherry Hospital.

However, Cherry Hospital’s treatment of its patients has not always just included the genial sounding horticultural therapy. Patients have endured a cavalcade of therapeutic abuses including electroshock therapy and being placed in cages as well as simple neglect. An entire ward of the hospital was closed in 2008 after a patient was neglected for almost an entire day. That patient died after being found unresponsive. In 2016, the original hospital closed and moved into a new facility within the city limits of Goldsboro. Since much of the land surrounding the original hospital was owned by the state department of agriculture, the whole facility has been transformed into the Cherry Research Farm.

Perhaps the saddest story from this facility became the subject of a 2007 book, Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson. A 17-year-old African-American man, Junius Wilson, was incarcerated here in 1925 on charges of rape. The young man could not communicate verbally, except through grunts and hand gestures, which were interpreted as being signs of mental illness. Mr. Wilson spent most of his life at Cherry Hospital before a social worker identified him as simply being deaf. Wilson’s grunting and wild gesticulation was simply a form of sign language used by African-Americans in the South. He was released and allowed to live his remaining days in a small cottage on the hospital grounds where he passed away in 2001.

Of course, the environment in places of such mental and physical travail, is often imprinted with profound human emotions: the despair of depression, the anguish of anxiety, or perhaps the confusion that marks disorders like schizophrenia. Rumors of hauntings have been passed among locals for years. In fact, the Modern Farmer mentions that some of these rumors and stories have been documented in a book. I suppose this is Margaret Langley’s series of books on Cherry’s sister facility, Broughton Hospital in Morganton. The third volume of her series includes stories from other mental facilities and hospitals in the state.

Langley, an R.N. who worked at Broughton, began collecting ghost stories during her time at the hospital. These stories eventually included stories from a number of other hospitals including Cherry from which she published several. Most of these stories involved elevators. One particular story involved a staff member who boarded an elevator only to notice someone else walking up to the doors as they were closing. Hitting the open doors button, the staff member was surprised when the doors opened to reveal no one else on the other side. Another staff member reported hearing the elevators operating in a portion of a building under renovation. These buildings were not occupied at the time and the elevators required keys to function.

Other than this source, there are few other texts that specifically speak to the haunting of this facility except for storyteller Randy Russell’s 2014 book, The Ghost Will See You Now: Haunted Hospitals of the South. In it, Russell explores stories of band music being heard within the facility. The hospital did have a band for patients and Russell reports that this band may still play on accompanied by the shuffling of feet as patients danced and whirled.

Sources

  • Barth, Brian. “The strange, horrifying history of Cherry Research Farm in North Carolina.” Modern Farmer. 11 December 2017.
  • Burch, Susan. Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill, NC: U. of NC Press, 2007.
  • Cherry Hospital. org. Accessed 30 December 2019.
  • Langley, Margaret. Haunted Broughton, Book III: History and Horror. CreateSpace, 2016.
  • Russell, Randy. The Ghost Will See You Now: Haunted Hospitals of the South. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2014.
  • “Ward where mental patient died closes at Cherry Hospital.” WRAL. 22 August 2008.
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