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Excerpt | Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum

The madness of Cousin Maynard

In her new book exploring the torturous legacy of a Jim Crow mental hospital, journalist Antonia Hylton details a family tragedy at the intersection of racism and mental illness

Crownsville Hospital under construction in 1911.Maryland State Archives

The only thing I ever knew about my father’s cousin Maynard was how he died. I first heard the story when I was eleven years old.

Some of my cousins had just come to our home to visit, and as my dad stood over the kitchen counter one night reading the paper, I inched over to him and asked why he never talked about his cousins. In some cases, they had lost touch or moved far away. Another cousin who had been his close companion as a kid had been in and out of jail as an adult. The man I called Uncle Kendal was actually a cousin, and, well, his big brother, Maynard, was dead. I asked how, and my dad explained it to me matter-of-factly. A cop killed Maynard. Nobody in the family had witnessed his cousin’s final moments, so everything we knew about Maynard’s killing came from the Mobile, Alabama, police department. Everything I was going to know about Maynard came from the white police officer who shot him within seconds of finding him.

My father is a funny combination of honest and reserved. Honest, in that he will answer any question you ask truthfully. Reserved, in that if you fail to ask excellent follow-ups, he will keep all the key details to himself. At eleven, you don’t ask great follow-up questions, so my dad was able to stay at the story’s surface and sidestep most of its pain. Almost two decades later, after years of observing my own family, I’ve grown convinced that when you swallow your pain it never does digest. I suspect that untreated pain curdles your blood and changes your code. It sinks into your bones, it blisters to the surface, and then it presents like diabetes, alcoholism, depression, obsessive compulsion, cancer. At least, that’s what it looks like in my family. My father’s and his father’s pain likely have become my own unease and obsession. In changing his own DNA, he changed mine. He may remember Maynard as a cousin and friend, but his refusal to remember out loud means that, for years, I’ve been haunted by a dead man.

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When my loved one began to struggle and I became desperate for answers, I learned to ask better follow-up questions. I started to value the time, good and bad, that people spent living, and to focus less on their worst moments. I decided to start by resurrecting Maynard.

In the summer of 1971, Maynard traded the humid and sticky city of Mobile, Alabama, for the fraught and also sticky city of Detroit. He brought all his bags, walked up two flights of narrow winding stairs, and crashed into the green-painted guest bedroom in my grandparents’ house on Oakman Boulevard. There was no A/C, but two industrial fans ran up in that room around the clock to keep its guests from passing out. Maynard was about five feet, seven inches, had a short Afro, beautiful dark brown skin, and piercing, somewhat wild eyes. There was a certain confidence within Maynard; he seemed liberated and sure of himself. My dad remembers watching his older, cooler cousin get up every day, put on stylish suits, and go off in Detroit to do his own thing. During the day he would clerk for my grandfather, a local civil rights lawyer. At night, when he was around and willing to give my dad and his identical twin, Kevin, some attention, music and politics brought them together. My dad describes Maynard’s taste as “far out.” He talked about revolutionary, fearless stuff. The music he played made no apologies. The tracks were like nothing my father, Keith, or Kevin had ever heard in their adolescence. Maynard taught them new expletives, too, though Dad declined to tell me which ones. He pulled Keith and Kevin into his world when they were just eleven—laughing and playing music with their big cousin at the same age I was when I learned that Maynard was dead.

Maynard introduced them to the forefathers of hip-hop, blasting the Last Poets from that hot guest room. My dad remembers hearing these lyrics for the first time:

Guns and rifles will be taking the place of poems and essays

Black cultural centers will be forts supplying the revolutionaries with food and arms

When the revolution comes

When the revolution comes

White death will froth the walls of museums and churches breaking the lie that enslaved our mothers

During dinner, Maynard could barely keep still. He’d get a little drunk and walk around the dining table, laughing and arguing with my grandparents and my dad’s oldest brother, Kenny, about civil rights, Richard Nixon, and philosophy. Keith and Kevin would listen and stare. Though he was short, Maynard had a commanding and athletic presence. He carried around his own autographed copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X until he passed it down to his younger brother Kendal. He would tell anyone who listened all about the latest books he had read or his theories of the world order. He liked to say that the best sport to play as a Black man was lacrosse. Why, you ask? Because it was one of the few ways you could hit a white boy upside the head with sticks and nobody could do anything about it.

Underneath the surface, an illness had been long in the making. Throughout the sixties and early seventies, Maynard had grown more fearful, morbid, and conspiratorial; he was sleeping less and less. The problem was, so were many Black people at the time. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated three years earlier. The city of Detroit had burned in the long, hot summer of 1967. Police were targeting men like Cousin Maynard here and back in his hometown of Mobile. Fear was nothing out of the ordinary.

‘It is hard to identify or diagnose mental illness in those conditions. It makes the symptoms look logical.’

Uncle Kendal

Maynard had grown up and gone to school in Mobile right across the street from Herndon Avenue, where a nineteen-year-old named Michael Donald would hang from a tree branch ten years later. In March 1981, after a racially mixed jury failed to find a local Black man guilty of the murder of a white man, a group of Ku Klux Klan members set out driving around the city, looking for any random Black person to murder. They spotted young Michael walking back home, carrying a pack of cigarettes he had picked up for his sister. The KKK kidnapped him, beat him with a tree limb, slit his throat three times, and left his body hanging. Maynard and Kendal knew this tree. They knew its shape, its knots and wrinkles. Maynard used to drive past the tree on Herndon Avenue all the time. One of the perpetrators became the only KKK member executed for the murder of a Black person during the entire twentieth century.

In 1966 Maynard entered the University of Alabama as a freshman, a little more than two years after George Wallace, a notorious racist and the governor of Alabama, had stood in the schoolhouse door of Foster Auditorium. Wallace put on an exaggerated performance of “states’ rights” in the face of federal agents as he blocked two young Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from entering to register at the university and pay their semester fees. Our family had begged and pleaded: Please, Maynard, pick any other school. They and other Black families had heard that the Ku Klux Klan had been swarming and closely watching the college campus. As expected, Maynard went anyway, excited to stick a big, Black middle finger to any white person who made him feel unwelcome. But by the end of his first year, he started confiding in his little brother Kendal that he suspected he didn’t have long to live. Kendal was terrified. The family started to wonder if something was wrong, but nobody had the words to name it, and certainly none of the tools to fix it.

Kendal, now a physician in Mobile, recalls that as Maynard made his way through college and then law school, he was often rambling about The Man. “The Man is out to get me,” he’d say. “The Man is watching me. I can’t sleep,” and “The Man doesn’t want me to pass my exam.” Kendal, eleven years his junior, would just listen quietly and try to understand. “The Man was real in the 1970s for a Black man from the South. But how do you deal with The Man?” Kendal once asked me earnestly. I fell silent. “People were out to get him, and eventually people got him. It is hard to identify or diagnose mental illness in those conditions. It makes the symptoms look logical.” To my young father, though, Maynard seemed like he was more alive, like he existed somewhere closer to the truth than anyone else they really knew.

It was five years after their boisterous six months together in Detroit that a cop killed Maynard. My dad can repeat all of the facts of the shooting that occurred on October 27, 1976. But he struggles to conjure any images that are his own. He can see headlines. He remembers there were phone calls. He can’t reconcile the Maynard that died on the steps of the federal building in Mobile with the Maynard who made him feel important, subversive, and free. He’s not even sure if he attended the funeral. His memory went blank.

Maynard was twenty-seven, freshly graduated from Texas Southern Law School, and had been struggling to pass the bar exam. Everyone knew Maynard was hurting, but he was hiding the full extent of his paranoia. He was also keeping a terrible secret: Maynard was hearing voices.

It’s estimated that a majority of people living with schizophrenia have these auditory hallucinations at some stage. They often grow stronger, more argumentative in dialogue, and become harder to ignore over time. The sounds can come as a whisper in your ear, a distant command from across the street, or a scream so loud you cannot bear it. My loved one did not hear voices, but they did report some memories of incidents, usually incredibly violent, that have not happened. Both Maynard and my loved one became trapped in loops, unable to stop verbally repeating or redescribing their fears, frustrated that people around them didn’t appear to be acting with as much urgency. The illness was all-consuming, they could not pay much attention to almost anything beyond what the illness showed or told them.

According to the authorities, around 6:30 p.m. on that evening in October, Maynard drove himself to the old Federal Building at 113 St. Joseph Street. He jumped out of the car, visibly desperate, and told the first security guard that he saw, “I don’t care who it is, but someone has got to take me out of the country tonight!”

The guard barricaded himself indoors. Moments later, Mobile Police Department’s Officer Benny Twiggs arrived on the scene. Maynard raised a .38-caliber revolver and either lunged or ran at Twiggs. No one really knows what Maynard did with the gun, except the officer who shot him. Twiggs fired once, striking him in the abdomen. My dad’s cousin died three hours later in the hospital.

Kendal received the phone call at 7:30 p.m. He remembers feeling as though the night was engulfed in an impenetrable darkness; the brightest lights on his car weren’t enough, and he was convinced he might crash at any moment as he sped to the hospital. By 10 p.m., his big brother was gone.

In some ways, Kendal and, to a lesser extent, my father have been lost in a dark fog ever since. It was a death so hurtful and so strange it’s made it impossible for anyone to talk about Maynard’s life. Maynard, once a force of light and a loud, belligerent voice, started to retreat into a footnote of our family history. A person so ahead of their time, reduced to their last horrible seconds on earth.

Maynard having a fun day on the water in Mobile, AL.Antonia Hylton

Today, Kendal says he sees his brother’s death as racially motivated, unnecessary, unjust. When blue lights come up behind him, he still feels his heart rate go up. He wishes there had been a framework for de-escalation or a rallying cry like Black Lives Matter—that it had been easier to find a community of people to grieve with. Instead, his brother Maynard’s legacy has been summed up in headlines like “Gun-Wielding Man Shot Down by Officer.” My father agrees with him. “Maybe the officer would have been slower about it, or worked harder at a peaceful resolution, if Maynard had been white,” he told me. “I suspect this may have been the case.” At the same time, Kendal doesn’t put all the blame on Officer Twiggs or the Mobile police force. Some of my family members are convinced that death was what Maynard wanted; that this was suicide. They didn’t know what he was going through, but they sensed he couldn’t take it anymore. And no Black man as conscious and culturally critical as him, they reason, would pull a revolver on a white police officer in Alabama without the full knowledge of how that encounter would end. Maynard may have been sick, but he had always, always been brilliant.

For a brief time, Kendal’s father, Maynard Vivian Foster Sr., contemplated suing the Mobile Police Department. Kendal remembers looking at his dad and realizing that he was worn and weary. Maynard Sr. had finished a multi-year public battle, Foster v. Mobile County Hospital Board. He sued the Mobile County General Hospital, arguing that their policies had effectively discriminated against Black doctors, and, ultimately, he won. Publicly he was proud; privately, the big win had exacted a price.

December 27, 1977, exactly one year and two months after the death of his son, Dr. Maynard Foster Sr. died, too. He had beaten all the odds: graduating from a Black medical school in the mid-1900s, serving in World War II, winning a landmark case, transforming his field. Losing his first son and namesake was shattering. “It hurt too bad when Maynard died,” Kendal explained. “He couldn’t figure fighting it out again.”

When my dad first told me so matter-of-factly that he had lost his big cousin and then his uncle, I felt so much sorrow for my daddy and for my grandparents and for Kendal. I wanted to be my dad’s friend, to tell him I was sorry that he had lost a cousin who had introduced him to new ways of looking at the world. Later, I was enraged. I was angry that no one could get Maynard any help. Angry that nobody talked about Maynard anymore. Angry that young Black people like Maynard have navigated this country with the knowledge that they could be blocked from a door, hung from a tree, or shot on the steps of a federal building, so easily and violently and with impunity. That, in fact, they could bet on it. They could lunge toward that fate. As I got older, questions kept nagging at me. Was there a connection between the two: between living with the weight of that reality—striving to become somebody and to live defiantly in spite of it—and suffering mental trauma? Was Maynard really plagued by delusions, or was he refusing to keep quiet about the same pain and terrors that so many of our family members try to swallow whole? Were we all actually looking at the same set of facts about our existence and coming to very different conclusions about how to cope?

I asked Kendal how he’s found healing, how one finds their way out of the dark fog when tragedy and illness strike. He isn’t sure. “It still hurts the same way after all the years,” he told me. “But talking to you is helping me. It feels good to revisit. Isn’t that what you want? I don’t want it to not hurt anymore. It means I’ve forgotten something.”

Excerpted from the book MADNESS: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum by Antonia Hylton. Copyright © 2024 by Antonia Hylton. Reprinted with permission of Legacy Lit. All rights reserved.

Antonia Hylton is a Peabody and Emmy-award winning journalist at NBC News reporting on politics and civil rights, and the co-host of the hit podcast Southlake and Grapevine.