Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 21, 2021

Contrary to century-old family lore, Johns Hopkins was an enslaver

By GRETA MARAS and CHRIS H. PARK | December 10, 2020

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COURTESY OF RUDY MALCOM

Hopkins is the latest addition to the lengthy list of American universities with direct ties to slavery.

The myth of Johns Hopkins, the University’s namesake and founder, has been proudly retold countless times on campus tours, convocations and around Baltimore: He was a lifelong abolitionist whose father, an avowed Quaker, freed the family’s enslaved people in 1807.

According to the story, Hopkins eventually became a successful businessman in Baltimore and an abolitionist who supported President Abraham Lincoln and the Union. On his death in 1873, he left $7 million — the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history at that time — to found what became the nation’s first research university, as well as a hospital that famously served Baltimoreans “without regard to sex, age or color.”

Last spring, however, a team of researchers led by Martha Jones began researching a 1850 census record listing four enslaved people in the household of a man named Johns Hopkins. This effort was launched after retired Maryland State Archivist Ed Papenfuse alerted the University of the possible existence of a document linking Johns Hopkins to slaveholding. 

Jones, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and a professor of history, and her team confirmed that the person listed on the census record was the University’s founder. On Wednesday, they released new evidence revealing that Hopkins had enslaved at least four Black people in 1850 and one in 1840. The team was unable to find evidence showing that Hopkins’ father had freed any enslaved people.

In an interview with The News-Letter, freshman Cierra Gladden explained that she had always believed that Hopkins had enslaved Black people.

“There was never space in my mind for hope that the origins of this institution weren’t racist. We know that these older institutions were built by slaves or on the backs of them, and they aren’t made for their descendants,” she said. “Black students aren’t afforded that naivete to think the origins weren’t racist. I thought we knew it already; I thought it was a given.” 

Nevertheless, the narrative of the University founder’s abolitionist legacy have been parroted for more than a century. These claims appear to have entirely been based on a 1929 book by Hopkins’ grandniece. Most private records of Hopkins’ life do not survive to this date and were either personally destroyed at the time of his death or were destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. In addition, the identity of the enslaved peoples and the conditions in which they lived are currently unknown.

Jones’ research was part of Hopkins Retrospective, an initiative launched in 2013 to explore the University’s history. Allison Seyler, the project director of Hopkins Retrospective, told The News-Letter that the team has reviewed the records of freedom papers and manumissions at the Maryland State Archives. Thus far, they have not found evidence that Hopkins or his father freed their enslaved people. 

Seyler stated that it is too early to speculate what the absence of the records means. However, she remained hopeful that further investigation could help them identify the four — potentially five — enslaved individuals.

“We are lucky in [Maryland] that the State Archives has been proactive about preserving those records for researchers to access them,” she said. “With a city like Baltimore, there is a high likelihood that the descendants of these enslaved individuals are still here. I remain hopeful that we’ll find more records that will at least show their first names so there could be some acknowledgement of them moving forward.”

Hopkins is the latest addition to the lengthy list of American colleges and universities with direct ties to slavery. However, the Homewood Campus is located on the former estate of the Carroll family, one of the largest slave-owning families in Maryland.

COURTESY OF CHRIS H. PARK

The Homewood Museum was originally built in the early 19th century as a summer home for the Carroll family.

In the email sharing the revelations, University President Ronald J. Daniels and top leaders of the School of Medicine described Johns Hopkins’ personal history as “complex and contradictory.”

“We felt it was important to share this new information with you now, as part of our ongoing work, announced last summer, to deepen our historical understanding of the legacy of racism in our country, our city, and our institutions,” they wrote. “These newly discovered census records complicate the understanding we have long had of Johns Hopkins as our founder.”

They also announced the launch of a multi-year project to answer remaining questions about the Hopkins family’s connection to slavery. The University will also join Universities Studying Slavery (USS), a consortium of peer institutions grappling with institutional histories of slavery and racism.

University officials will be hosting a town hall on Dec. 11 for Hopkins affiliates and community members to further discuss the findings.

Gladden does not believe that the University is framing the legacy of the founding benefactor with enough emphasis on the present day.

“It’s not just Hopkins’ complicated past; it’s its complicated present, and it will be the complicated future if we don’t address the issues that are causing it,” she said. “Packaging up everything Hopkins has done and delivering it as ‘complicated’ allows people to take themselves out of the idea that these complicated pasts have ramifications today, and they might think that they’re able to step away from it and not really think about it.”

Despite its supposed founding on principles of equity, the University and Hospital have a history of mistreating communities of color — from displacing over 700 families near the medical campus as part of the East Baltimore Development Initiative to using hardball tactics to sue thousands of its Black and low-income neighbors for alleged medical debt

Most recently, the now-suspended plans to create the Johns Hopkins Police Department has raised concerns of harm resulting from systemic racism in policing.

In addition, the Hospital notably took samples of cells from a Black patient, Henrietta Lacks, while treating her for cancer without her consent.

Junior Jordan Adams expressed his belief that Hopkins will have to take drastic actions to address how the University negatively impacted Black communities throughout its history in an email to The News-Letter

“The only way to right these wrongs is to pay reparations first to the Black Baltimore residents, pay and increase wages for its Black employees, hire more Black faculty and pay Black students’ tuition,” he wrote. “These are the only solutions to right their wrongs and anything else is nothing but PR brownie points. Their ‘town halls’ and ‘open dialogue’ do not affect any change, especially as the University continues to do damage to the city of Baltimore.”

While Daniels expressed regret about the revelations, he stressed his commitment to further researching the truth behind the University’s history in an interview with The News-Letter.

“We see someone who, in terms of the gifts he provides at his death... transcended [his] time. In another way, we now learn and see that he was of his time and was of his state of what border state south of the Mason-Dixon line,” he said. “These complexities are seen as challenging, but at the same time I think it pushes into the direction of coming to terms with where we are as an institution and the history we’ve had and the connections we’ve had.”

Daniels ruled out discussions on renaming the University based on the discovered information.

According to Gladden, changing the University’s name would not alleviate the negative legacy of Johns Hopkins in a substantial way.

“While I think that can be grounds for changing the name, that doesn’t erase that history or the negative impacts the founder had on the Baltimore community,” she said.

By contrast, Adams suggested that the University should change its name.

“The name tied to the University, Hospital and its various institutions is part of what gives it its prestige,” he wrote. “The University has only ever provided surface-level ‘change,’ and I do not expect them to do anything more than that, though it needs to be demanded that they do.”

Sophomore Nene Okolo, member of the Black Student Union, stated that she was not shocked by the news. However, she was concerned by the fact that it was revealed after the University had been existing for more than a century.

“The fact that the news is just coming out in 2020 when there are so many societal issues coming out at this moment — it was very surprising and upsetting,” she said. “I want the University to take actual physical action to combat racism and make sure that students of color feel appreciated, welcome and included in the Johns Hopkins atmosphere.”

Adams felt that the University was too delicate in addressing the findings.

“I felt especially frustrated that they reserved to call him a ‘slaveholder’ and not a racist so that they can easily justify and maintain his owning slaves along with his monetary contribution to an inclusive hospital and an orphanage for Black children,” he wrote.

Gladden argued that the University’s promise of continued research effort does not adequately address the issues faced by Black students at Hopkins.

“I appreciate the work that Martha Jones has done,” she said. “However, as long as the experiences of Black students continue to include the University not listening, getting arrested for protesting and feeling ignored by the administration when we talk about the Black student retention rate or racism, the University needs to move beyond task forces and research initiatives.”

Leela Gebo and Michelle Limpe contributed reporting to this article.

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ed Papenfuse located the 1850 census record. Although Papenfuse initially alerted Hopkins of the possible existence of a document linking Johns Hopkins to slavery, University researchers located the record. 

The original article also incorrectly referred to the Mason-Dixon Line as the Dixon Line. 

The News-Letter regrets these errors.  

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