Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 26, 2023

New research challenges University namesake's ties to slavery

By ISHAN KALBURGE | June 29, 2021



Several researchers have taken issue with the University's assertion that Johns Hopkins owned enslaved people. 

The University announced in December the discovery of evidence suggesting that Johns Hopkins, long regarded as a staunch abolitionist, owned enslaved people. Research conducted by Professor of History Martha S. Jones under Hopkins Retrospective, a program launched in 2013 to investigate the history of the University, contended that, according to census documents, Hopkins had enslaved one person in 1840 and four people in 1850. 

New research, however, has called the announcement into question. 

In a paper published last month, a group of researchers argued that the University was too quick to label Hopkins as an enslaver, contending that evidence linking Hopkins to slaveholding remains inconclusive. The report asserts that his grandparents freed their enslaved people before 1800 as part of Quaker norms and cites evidence — including tax records — indicating that Hopkins never directly enslaved people.

The new study was co-authored by Sydney van Morgan, director of the International Studies Program; Stan Becker, a professor emeritus at the School of Public Health; Samuel B. Hopkins, a lawyer and distant relative of Johns Hopkins and Edward Papenfuse, a former Maryland State archivist. Papenfuse had originally brought the possibility of documents linking Hopkins to slavery to the attention of the University last year.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Morgan argued that the University falsely claimed to have strong evidence in support of its claims. She added that some of the statements released on University websites made assertions that were not supported by documented evidence. 

“We were all intrigued initially, [and] I think that intrigue gave way to concern that the University had jumped the gun,” she said in an interview with The News-Letter. “On [a] webpage for the University, it says that there is strong documentary evidence that Johns Hopkins held enslaved people in his homes in Baltimore until at least the mid-1800s — there is zero evidence to support that claim.”

The authors contended that, contrary to the University’s statements in December, there is no record of his parents owning enslaved people after 1800, according to the report. In fact, his grandfather was responsible for manumitting inherited enslaved people shortly after Hopkins was born. Evidence also suggests that the Hopkins family was devoutly Quaker and followed the teachings of the Quaker faith, which supported the freedom of enslaved people.

The authors also argued that though Hopkins was likely not a radical abolitionist, there is considerable evidence that Hopkins opposed slavery, challenging the University’s declaration in December that Hopkins was not an abolitionist at all.

“Before 1850, to be an abolitionist meant that you were someone who believed in the immediate and absolute end of slavery, and there is no indication that Hopkins believed that,” Morgan said. “But there is lots of evidence that [Hopkins] opposed slavery and was involved in various anti-slavery activities, and that his family had been as well.”

Moreover, the report questions the conclusions drawn from the 1840 and 1850 censuses that were used in the University’s announcement. In both 1840 and 1850, census enumerators were not required to collect information on the legal relationship between the enslaver and the enslaved person. This meant that though his property may have been listed as having enslaved people, Hopkins himself may not have enslaved them.

Morgan explained this practice in her interview. 

“[Southern slaveowners] did not want records of who owned [whom], but they had to get a population census of enslaved people because that gave them more representation in Congress,” she said.

However, because enslaved people were taxable property, the authors relied on tax records to establish any connections between Hopkins and the enslaved people listed on census documents. They found that in 1840, his brother — not Hopkins or his company — paid taxes on one enslaved person. In 1850, Hopkins did not pay taxes for any of the four enslaved people listed, suggesting that any of the other 28 residents listed under the Hopkins property might have enslaved them. Furthermore, in 1860, census laws changed to include information about the relationship between enslavers and their enslaved people and those census documents did not list any enslaved people under the name of Hopkins himself.

In an email to The News-Letter, Jones emphasized that the evidence still confirms Hopkins held enslaved people in his household, even if the legal relationship between Hopkins and those enslaved people is not fully understood.

“Perhaps he owned them. Perhaps he hired or rented them. Perhaps he bartered or borrowed their forced labor,” she wrote. “Evidence also strongly suggests that Mr. Hopkins engaged in business transactions that involved enslaved people as some form of guarantee.”

Jones and the authors of the new report agreed that the issue warrants further investigation.

Though the authors have urged the University to reexamine content on its websites, Vice President of Communications Andrew A. Green noted in an email to The News-Letter that there are currently no plans to change the language used, though it is subject to change in the future.  

“We expect the content on our websites related to Mr. Johns Hopkins will evolve and expand as our research continues,” he wrote. “[The University is] committed to our own continued research under the auspices of the Hard Histories project led by Martha Jones and Hopkins Retrospective.”

The University plans to hold a fall symposium examining the history of slavery in Maryland and its connections to the institution’s history. Green added that dialogue from this symposium will shape how the University approaches any changes to its websites.

Allison Seyler, program manager of Hopkins Retrospective, expressed her approval of the symposium, noting its importance in communicating ideas to the community.

“The symposium will be an opportunity for dialogue about the historical research process and how historians interpret archival records and [for sharing] any new findings with the public,” she wrote. 

Green stated that plans for the symposium are not yet finalized, but it will be led by the Hard Histories project and Hopkins Retrospective.

Morgan emphasized the importance of community involvement in the research process. She has created a public database for information related to the history of Johns Hopkins and encourages members of the community to contribute evidence to it.

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