Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 20, 2021

When it comes to slavery, the truth won’t set you free

By AMANI NELSON | December 15, 2020

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The University and some non-Black students’ response to news that Johns Hopkins was a slaveowner prove they don’t truly value Black people. 

The news that the founder of your centuries-old research university has an unsavory past, while not surprising, does warrant some sober reflection and a plan to move forward. A name change will never fly. The immense legacy-building done over the past 250 years (and especially the newfound pandemic clout) will never be sacrificed for the sake of Black people. 

However, upon reading and listening to the University’s response, I was a little dumbfounded by the lack of acknowledgement of just how bad these revelations really are. The video posted by the University stated that Johns Hopkins’ family had “a relationship to slaveholding.” An email sent by the administration said he was “involved in the insidious institution of slavery.” This language is extremely deflective and does not own up to the fact that a man you have built statues of and told us to celebrate owned Black people as property. 

In a town hall on Friday discussing the implications of the recent news, several panelists, including University President Ronald J. Daniels, expressed that this news had “distressed them and caused them great pain” and that they knew this news was “devastating” for those who admired Johns Hopkins. 

Let me be clear: No one cares. The conversation we have about these revelations should have nothing to do with the feelings of Hopkins’ admirers. 

The last thing any Black Hopkins student wants to hear right now is how upset a white person was about finding out that another white person wasn’t a nice guy. It’s called white fragility, and it helps no one. Apologize for the slavery; then, apologize again with money.

This news has been used as an attempt by the University to celebrate their prestigious research department and re-introduce every hollow effort that has been made to “diversify” Hopkins. Johns Hopkins, as a white man, has enjoyed over a century of misplaced admiration and an institution working tirelessly to sanitize his legacy in order to keep him on the “good side” of history. 

The fact that the school proposed town halls and task forces, rather than investment in Baltimore or a platform for Black affiliates, is extremely telling. Now that this evil has nowhere to hide, the University wants to make this a research effort, not a social justice one. 

Hopkins is attempting to fold a disgusting legacy of enslavement into the aesthetic of the University when the only humane response is complete rejection of the false legacy of Johns Hopkins and a fundamental change in its support of Black students, staff, faculty and residents of Baltimore. You don’t have to go looking for Black people to support; they are in your backyard, and you are destroying their homes. Instead of celebrating your own research and “how far we’ve come,” take a moment to seriously consider the things actual Black people have been asking you to do for years. 

My disappointment is not, however, solely with the administration. Within a day of this news being announced, a student posted the video from the University on their Instagram story, criticizing the response to the news by saying it was “such a long time ago” and asking, “What about the other races? Let the past die please.” 

The post was shared in a group chat made up of Black students at Johns Hopkins and later shared on Twitter. Black students, including myself, criticized the post both publicly online and privately in the group chat for asking us to leave behind the legacy of slavery. These public and private messages were later shared on Reddit by someone who has remained anonymous. 

Bringing up “other races” when discussing slavery and other Black issues is the same rhetoric as “All Lives Matter.” It minimizes our experience and is a gaslighting tactic to convince Black people that their feelings about their ancestors or those who look like them being bought and sold like animals for centuries is invalid or unimportant. 

Black students’ personal feelings about public comments on slavery were met with anonymous postings on both r/jhu and hopcrushes.com of “fuck the Blackjays.” Many posts were made accusing Black students of attempting to “cancel” the student who made the Instagram post (one of which received over 4,000 likes). When the person making the comments was accused of being racist, they responded by saying that they were upset with “that particular group of toxic people,” which just so happens to be a group chat of over 500 Black students at Hopkins. 

Several more posts were made claiming “affirmative actioners mad” and “basketball Americans mad.” These kinds of attacks are nothing new to Black students, and they are never about educating, understanding or starting a conversation; rather, they are pathetic attempts to hurt Black people. 

Despite numerous anonymous claims to the contrary: No Black students calling for the University to be renamed. No Black students were calling for the student who posted on Instagram to be punished. No Black students asked them to delete their entire Instagram account. And no Black students were surprised by the news that a rich white man in the 1800s owned enslaved people.

To go on an anonymous site and attack one of the already most marginalized groups at an elite university is cowardly and hateful. The fact that students chose to only share racist and hateful comments on websites where they can be anonymous only speaks to their cowardice and hate. 

Lastly, I want to address an argument made in several online posts attempting to defend the student who made the Instagram post. They claimed that many who were criticizing them were African immigrants, not descendants of American slavery, and therefore, had benefited from the very system they were critiquing and have no more of a right to address Johns Hopkins’ legacy than anyone else. 

This argument is yet another attempt to divide our already marginalized community. While it is true that the majority of Black people in elite education are descended from African immigrants and the University’s failure to disaggregate this data is another example of avoiding a hard conversation about how “diverse” it really is, that does not mean you get to invalidate what they have to say about racism at Hopkins. 

Why? Because to an armed campus police officer or noose-carrying racist we are all the same. African students at Hopkins have displayed far more solidarity with African American students than any other group and have had a much more similar experience in America than the average student of color. We face the same danger, gaslighting and ignorance — which is why the Blackjays group chat exists. It is a safe space for us to just be Black, and this week people violated that space. So yes, we are angry, we are going to criticize and we are going to disagree. 

My great-great-great-grandmother, Easter Nelson, was enslaved in Virginia. She herded cattle and worked as a “breeder” for her master (I don’t know his name). I have photographs of her and her descendants after they were freed. That is not something that happened “so long ago” that it has no effect on me. The ramifications of American slavery are incalculable, and the systemic racism that persists in this country is real, so take it seriously. Grandma Easter is a reminder of who I am, who my people are and how proud she is of me now. That is not a past I can “let die.” 

Amani Nelson is a senior studying Public Health and Medicine Science & the Humanities from Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Black Student Union and the Blackjays group chat. 

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