“Eugene Hoskins is his name. He lives at Oxford, Miss., a University place of about three thousand people. He is well known about town for his eccentricities.” Thus begins the 1920 account of a 24-year-old black man whose constellation of neuropsychological symptoms—that is to say, his “eccentricities”—are now immediately recognizable as those of an autistic savant. Remarking on his “uncanny knowledge of dates,” the case report relates how “a bystander said to him: ‘I was married on the 8th of June, 1901.’ Without a moment’s hesitation Eugene said: ‘Dat was a Satu’day.’ Given the month, day and year, he will give the day of the week. He never fails, never hesitates. Vary if you will by giving the year and month and asking what day of the month was the second Tuesday, or the fourth Friday—he answers just the same.”
The author of this Southern-drawled study from the Journal of Applied Psychology was a hygiene professor at the University of Mississippi named Hiram Byrd. After describing Hoskins as a tall and lanky “eight-rock,” Byrd offers a footnote for his naïve Yankee readers: “A pure blood African is, among some of the Southern negroes, called ‘eight-rock,’ while half-breeds are known as ‘ginger-breads’ and lighter shades as ‘high-yellows.’ ” Despite this casual racist tone, Byrd shows a genuine interest in Hoskins as a human being, and shares observations made with both a cold, clinical gaze and a novelist’s sympathetic eye. One can picture a suspender-wearing Byrd dictating his case report to a secretary while leaning back in a rickety leather-padded chair and chewing on the end of a pipe, the distant ah-hoo-gas of Model Ts and the sound of horse hooves clacking just outside his window.
Such details we’ll never know. We do know this: Over the next 92 years, Byrd’s brief report on Hoskins would be cited just a dozen or so times, and tangentially at that. Today the eccentric young man from Oxford is merely one of countless characters whose mental anomalies haunt the undisturbed volumes that decompose on library bookshelves. But there are at least two reasons for us to look at Hoskins more closely. First, he appears to be among the first black Americans ever to be described—unintentionally, of course—as possessing the clear hallmarks of autism. (The very first might be Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, an autistic savant born into slavery in 1848 on a Georgia plantation whose prodigious musical abilities as a “negro boy pianist” made him world-famous.) Second, Hoskins happened to call home a place that would soon be immortalized by another Oxford resident, an aspiring young writer less than a year apart from him in age, named William Faulkner.
To appreciate Hoskins’ role in the history of autism, realize just how swiftly our knowledge of this neurocognitive disorder has evolved over such a short span of time. In Hoskins’ day, autistics of all races and ethnicities were scattered across small towns and burgeoning metropolises, and many of these people were institutionalized after being misdiagnosed as “idiots” or schizophrenics. Autism wouldn’t be identified as such for another two decades. (I’d stumbled upon Byrd’s ancient article only by chance while writing a piece on the demoralizing vocabulary once used to refer to those with mental disabilities. Byrd’s study of Hoskins was titled, “A Case of Phenomenal Memorizing by a Feeble-Minded Negro.”) It wasn't until 1943 that an Austrian-born psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins named Leo Kanner published a report of 11 children exhibiting a distinct set of social and emotional deficits. “[These] children’s relation to people is altogether different,” wrote Kanner. “Every one, upon entering the office, immediately went after blocks, toys, or other objects, without paying the least attention to the persons present … the people figured in about the same manner as did the desk, the bookshelf, or the filing cabinet.” Kanner’s diagnostic christening of autism was made against the asocial mind of Donald Triplett (“Case 1”), a 9-year-old boy from a privileged white family living just a few hours south of Oxford in Forest, Miss. (You can read a 2010 profile of Triplett in the Atlantic.)
Since Kanner’s initial report, innumerable scholarly articles and chapters have examined various aspects of autistic spectrum disorder—everything from its genetic and neurochemical underpinnings to its impact on family members and the community at large. Yet few studies have focused on the question of how autism relates to race and ethnicity. Although there are no known differences in the prevalence or epidemiology of the disorder (16.8 of every 10,000 individuals have autistic disorder, and 62.6 fall somewhere along the spectrum), black families have often been underrepresented in genetic studies. A common prerequisite for participating in genetic research is that both parents provide their DNA, too—which means that minority children, who are disproportionately raised in single-parent households, are often excluded. There are also disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of minority children. Black autistic children are more likely to be mislabeled as having, say, ADHD or conduct disorder, and when they are properly identified, the diagnosis comes significantly later than it would for their white peers. These disparities are probably due to diminished access to health care (one-third of all black children are in the welfare system, compared with 9 percent of white children), lower rates of education among black parents, and the prejudices of physicians who may be more inclined to focus on black children’s disruptive social behaviors or generalized intellectual deficits, rather than their other symptoms of autism.
If invidious stereotypes can still creep into the clinic as psychiatric bias, consider how the perception of black intelligence in 1920s Mississippi might have influenced a scholar like Byrd. Oxford is the same town, keep in mind, where more than 40 years later James Meredith waded through a sea of angry segregationists and U.S. marshals to pass the university’s Lyceum doors as the first black man enrolled at Ole Miss. Anyone who has ever read a Faulkner novel about “Yoknapatawpha County” (the author’s fictitious name for the locale) grasps the sharp and unquestioned racial divides of that specific place in time.
But Hoskins’ autism made him stand out from other blacks, and his difficulty in reading into the behavior of other people may have shielded him, in some ways, from the overt injustices that so dehumanized his peers. From Byrd’s descriptions, Hoskins seems almost to transcend race: “He is a never ending source of entertainment for them,” writes the professor of Hoskins’ impressive calendar performances for dumbfounded undergrads on the Ole Miss campus. “He has a habit of mumbling to himself, and often laughs right out.” Onlookers would often toss him a nickel, but rarely would he accept more. “He has been known to refuse a dollar and [to] become indignant when the donor put it in his pocket. He would not touch it and insisted that it be taken out.”
This brings us to the question of how Hoskins, an undiagnosed, black autistic savant living in the egregiously racist Deep South of 1920, managed to get by. Byrd tells us that Hoskins was cared for by a white family named the Gambles, “who furnish him with food and clothes and a place to sleep, in return for which he delivers papers, gets in coal, feeds the pigs on the farm, and does little odds and ends about the place … he trusts the Gambles implicitly.” Hoskins was especially close to Mr. Gamble. Being known about town by several names—Eugene, Gene, James, and Jim—he loathed being called the latter; this entitlement was reserved for Mr. Gamble alone. When someone else once shouted over to “Jim” for a pail of water to help put out a burning house up the road, “he balked and refused to move.” When Byrd asked him why he did this, Hoskins replied, “Da wasn’t talkin’ to me—I ain’t Jim.”
I wanted to learn more about Hoskins’ life, including how he came to live with the Gambles. So after consulting with a local historian by email, a few weeks ago I visited Oxford to sift through the county archives. The Gambles, it seems, had owned a small general store near the train depot that catered to weary rail travelers and incoming students. A 1920 census shows that the family was living on a road adjacent to the station. These pieces fit together when considering another clue to Hoskins’ autism—his obsession with trains. Byrd tells us that the subject of his case report was frequently at the train depot, a place redolent with honeysuckle and coal, and which for generations was a hectic passenger node along the Illinois Central. “I was talking with him once when the locomotive whistled. He darted out of the room almost like a released spring. I asked him yesterday if he meets all the trains. He said not, and told me of two or three times that the trains had passed when he didn’t meet them.” Byrd describes having departed from Oxford on a train between 3 and 4 a.m. one chilly morning, and finding Hoskins alone on the platform. He was likely scribbling notes on train engine numbers into his notebook—an object for scientific study that Byrd would later pry from his hands with “suggestive pressure” for a peek inside. My guess is that the Gambles gradually warmed up to the peculiar young man always milling about outside their shop or hunched over a notebook, murmuring cryptic route numbers and soliciting birthdates from perplexed passengers, and that’s how they came to take him under their wing and open up their home to him.