At Johns Hopkins, Revelations About Its Founder and SlaveryHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, Johns Hopkins, colleges and universities
It’s a tale that has long been repeated at the university and medical center in Baltimore that bear his name: In 1807, the 12-year-old Johns Hopkins was summoned home from boarding school to work the fields of the family’s sprawling tobacco farm in Maryland after his father, following the directives of his Quaker faith, freed the family’s slaves.
Young Johns grew up to be a wildly successful businessman and, as the story goes, a committed abolitionist. And on his death in 1873, he left $7 million — the largest philanthropic bequest in American history at that time — to found the nation’s first research university, along with a hospital that would serve the city’s poor “without regard to sex, age or color.”
Hopkins’s Quaker rectitude has been a touchstone for the institution he founded. But an important part of that origin story, it turns out, is untrue.
On Wednesday, Johns Hopkins University released new research revealing that there were enslaved people in its founding benefactor’s household as late as 1850. And while the Hopkins family’s entanglements with slavery are complicated, the university has so far found no evidence of Johns Hopkins’s father freeing any enslaved people.
As for the longstanding claims that Hopkins himself held abolitionist beliefs, it is unclear whether they rest on any evidence at all.
In a letter to the Hopkins community, the leaders of the university, medical school and medical system announced a multiyear effort to further study the Hopkins family’s connections with slavery, which it called “a crime against humanity.”
Johns Hopkins University, founded after the Civil War by a supposedly antislavery benefactor, might seem to have largely sidestepped that reckoning, even as it increasingly acknowledged how the university (which did not admit its first Black undergraduate until 1945) has been shaped by Jim Crow and racism.
But last spring, a researcher at the Maryland State Archives became aware of an 1850 census record listing four enslaved people in the household of a man named Johns Hopkins, and contacted the university. Its president, Ronald J. Daniels, asked Martha S. Jones, a history professor, to investigate the matter as part of a broader exploration of the university’s history of discrimination announced in July, in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests.
In an interview, Mr. Daniels said the news of Hopkins’s slaveholding was “obviously extremely painful.” But he added that it was important to tell the full story of the man, citing the university’s motto — the truth will set you free.
Professor Jones, whose scholarship focuses on Black political activism in 19th-century America, also looked at just how the university came to tell a rosy and, it appears, erroneous story about Johns Hopkins to begin with.
“The story of Hopkins’s forebears having freed enslaved people, of Hopkins as an abolitionist, suited us as an institution,” she said.
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