A newspaper clipping reports the hire of Thomas Victory to the Rappahannock Guidance Clinic in the 1970s.

Therapist’s service an early victory for Black mental health patients in Fredericksburg

by | Feb 27, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Health & Wellness

When Thomas Victory was beginning his career as a mental health therapist in Fredericksburg, one of his clients was a Black teenage girl — an honor student who had dropped out of college after enduring a bad breakup and entered a deep depression. 

“The diagnosis was to send her straight to Eastern State (Hospital),” Victory said of the mental health facility in Williamsburg. “But I encouraged her to take baby steps, like going back to church with her family, going to the store with her family. It was not so much medication. It was just a matter of regaining her self-esteem.” 

In the early 1970s, Victory was hired as the first Black staffer at the Rappahannock Guidance Clinic, formerly located on Wolfe Street in Fredericksburg. 

Victory said the young lady — who eventually had a positive breakthrough — was a “prime example” of discrepancies in how Black mental health patients were being treated compared to others. Those discrepancies, in turn, contributed to the ongoing stigma of seeking mental health treatment in the Black community. 

“When Blacks came in for mental health counseling or depression or they were acting out, the next step was shipping them to Eastern State. That was the norm,” Victory said. “The white clients were given long-term therapy, and their issues were resolved.” 

Current Black mental health professionals in the region said there have been dramatic improvements in the profession. However, a lack of cultural awareness in dealing with Black patients and misdiagnoses are still commonplace.  

Gary “Trey” Taylor, a Caroline County resident, and mental health liaison with the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board (RACSB), said there has been a push to encourage more Blacks to pursue careers in mental health and social work, which inspires those needing treatment to seek it. 

Taylor is now an instructor in the Social Work graduate program at Virginia State University, a Historically Black College and University in Petersburg. Victory is a VSU graduate and guest lecturer there. 

Taylor, who previously worked in crisis therapy at RACSB and had a private practice in Caroline, said participation in Victory’s class is increasing, and the first graduation will take place this spring. 

“I have been in this field since 2011 and I have seen it shift to where Black men and women are receiving help,” said Taylor, who also supervises social work graduates looking to become licensed clinical social workers. “They are asking for help. When I had my practice, all my guys showed up and wanted therapy. I think awareness is good. People are more intrigued about mental health now. But the question is, ‘Where are the clinicians and therapists that look like me?’” 

Victory was a rarity. The New York native moved to Fredericksburg at age 10 and graduated from James Monroe High School in 1969.  He said entering Virginia’s segregated school system was a culture shock. “Being from New York, we did not have integration and segregation,” Victory recalled. “I did not face any blatant discrimination in Fredericksburg, but it was different.” 

After graduating from JM, Victory went to VSU and completed his sociology degree in three years. He took extra credit hours because he was eager to make his grandmother proud. He returned home and accepted a job at the Rappahannock Guidance Clinic, which had very few Black patients — let alone a Black therapist.

“The barriers were financial,” Victory said. “People thought they could not afford it. The generation before us did not pass it down to us that if you had challenges, you go to therapy.” 

In addition to his work in Fredericksburg, Victory helped support a weekly outreach clinic for mental health after-care patients. The Caroline clinic helped individuals who needed assistance acclimating to society. 

“I gathered all my clients, and we coached them on social skills, going to restaurants, going to stores and being independent,” Victory said. “Whereas, before, whether you were Black or white, mentally challenged people were kept at home and out of sight.” 

Although his tenure with the Rappahannock Guidance Clinic was short-lived, Victory continued his career in social work. In 2013, he retired after 33 years as the executive director of the Richmond Urban League, a civil rights organization that advocates for social justice and the economic well-being of Blacks. 

Since his retirement, Victory has focused on grassroots efforts to fight food insecurity and health disparities in rural communities. 

Taylor has taken the baton from Victory as a familiar face that the local Black community can lean on for mental health support. He said the methods to reach his community have evolved.

In particular, he partners with RACSB to host regular barbershop talks where Black men address their issues. After discussions in Caroline and Spotsylvania County, he recently conducted his first salon session with Black women.  

Taylor said the goal is to equip barbers and hairdressers to learn the signs that someone is struggling with mental health, because they are often their clients’ confidants. 

“We are giving them counseling skills and the necessary resources because, a lot of times, barbers and stylists are the first line of defense,” Taylor said. “So now, it is about taking a nontraditional approach to empower the community.” 

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