At Johns Hopkins: On the Founder and Slavery of Revelation

It’s a tale that has long been repeated at the University and Medical Center of Baltimore that bears his name: in 1807, 12-year-old Johns Hopkins was called home from a boarding school to work on the fields of the family’s expanding tobacco farm in Maryland. after his father freed the slaves of the family following the instructions of his Quaker faith.

Young Johns became a wildly successful businessman and, according to the story, committed to abolition. After his death in 1873, he left $ 7 million — the largest philanthropic legacy in American history at the time — to establish the nation’s first research university, as well as a hospital to serve the city’s poor “regardless of gender, age, or color. . “

Hopkins’ Quaker direction was a touchstone for the institution he founded. But it turns out that an important part of this origin story is untrue.

On Wednesday, Johns Hopkins University published a new study that found that there were slaves in the founder’s beneficial household as early as 1850. And although it is difficult to enslave the Hopkins family, the university has so far found no evidence that Johns Hopkins ’father would release slaveholders.

As for the long-standing claim that Hopkins himself professed an abolitionist faith, it is not clear whether they rely on any evidence at all.

In a letter to the Hopkins community, the leaders of the university, medical school, and medical system announced a multi-year effort to further study the Hopkins family’s relationship to slavery, which he called a “crime against humanity”.

The revelation on Johns Hopkins, according to leaders, “draws attention not only to the darkest chapters in the history of our country and city, but also to the complex history of our institutions ever since and the legacies of racism and inequality we work together to face. “

In recent years, more and more universities have faced their historical mergers with slavery. Many, sometimes in response to student activism, renamed the buildings or removed the statue of the slaveholders, or created outstanding monuments to the people of the slave line who built and served the university.

Johns Hopkins University, founded by a supposedly anti-robbery benefactor after the Civil War, appears to have largely ignored this calculation, even though it increasingly acknowledged that the university (which did not recognize its first black university student until 1945) was shaped by Jim Crow. and racism.

But last spring, a researcher at the Maryland State Archives became aware of an 1850 census record that listed four people enslaved in the household of a man named John Hopkins and contacted the university. Its president, Ronald J. Daniels, has asked history professor Martha S. Jones to investigate the matter as part of a broader exploration of the university’s history of discrimination, which was announced in July as a result of the George Floyd protests.

In an interview, Mr. Daniels said the news of Hopkins’ slavery was “obviously extremely painful.” But he added that citing the university’s motto, it’s important to tell the man’s full story – the truth sets him free.

“He wants his origins to be more than mythical,” Mr. Daniels said. “For a story of origin to be grounded and lasting, it has to be true.”

How the news gets across the university or more broadly in Baltimore, a black-majority city with which the university has often had close ties, is yet to come. But Daniels said he hopes “unwavering self-examination” and transparent disclosure will “provide a stronger foundation for our relationship”.

Asked if he thought the name of the university would be questioned, he said that while it was important to fully acknowledge Hopkins ’slavery, the institution was not defined.

“Throughout our nearly 150-year history, there have been plenty of opportunities to choose how to map out our mission and take advantage of the best of the legacy we have received,” he said.

Few personal records of Hopkins and his family have survived. To begin the story of Hopkins ’family and slavery, he worked with Professor Jones Allison Seyler, program manager at an existing Hopkins history project in the university library, digging into legal, census, and other records.

In addition to the 1850 record, researchers found an 1840 census record showing one of the slaves in the Hopkins household. (The 1860 census does not list slaves in his household.) Documents from the 1830s have also been found that show that Hopkins and his company sometimes sought to enslave debts.

But Professor Jones, whose scholarship focuses on black political activism in 19th-century America, also looked at how the university began to tell a pink and seemingly false story about Johns Hopkins.

“The story of Hopkins’ predecessors, who liberated slaves, from Hopkins as an abolitionist, was appropriate for us as an institution, ”he said.

It is not surprising in itself that people of Hopkins ’wealth and position are enslaved or traded. Slavery remained legal in Maryland, one of the four slaves of the Union, until shortly before the end of the Civil War.

Professor Jones ’research report notes that at the time of Hopkins’ death, some newspaper articles did refer to slavery for himself and his family. One told a story about his grandfather pursuing a series of slaves. (Professor Jones noted that his grandfather freed eight slaves in 1778, but kept dozens of people in bondage.)

Another article noted Hopkins ’generous legacy as a“ three-color maid ”who was allegedly granted leave at some point in the past but“ has remained faithfully in his service ever since ”. (Professor Jones found no record of Hopkins freeing his slaves.)

In the 20th century, Professor Jones found that a new story was beginning to emerge based on family recollections and mixed facts.

In 1917, the former director of Hopkins Hospital in an article told the story of Hopkins ’father, Samuel, manipulating his slaves, which appears to have been obtained from interviews with Hopkins’ family members.

In 1929, the university press published a lovely biography of his grandmother, Alice Thom, entitled “Johns Hopkins: The Silhouette”. (Hopkins had no children.) This book repeated the story of Samuel Hopkins, while generally depicting slavery as a “benevolent institution” and slavery as “contented and faithful”. ”Writes Professor Jones.

This story caught on and was often repeated in newspaper articles and books. And the university has reached it, too, Professor Jones said as he told his story.

A 1974 article in alumni magazine repeated this story, as did a 1976 article in American Heritage describing that “the difficult realities of working life suddenly fell on the young man’s shoulder when his father in 1807, following the new Quaker policy, to free all his slaves. “

The story was repeated in 1995 in an article commemorating the 200th anniversary of Hopkins ’birthday, noting his“ fierce abolitionism ”. And it also appears in an article currently on the Hopkins Medical System website: “Who was Johns Hopkins?”

Johns Hopkins ’personal views on slavery, Jones said, require further research. So far, he said he had found no evidence that he had ever supported or supported the abolition, which means, according to his report, “an immediate and unclassifiable end to slavery in the United States”.

He said it would also be important to look at Hopkins ’founding legacy – which envisioned a hospital that – in an unusual way for the time being – treated black patients with black lenses, but in separate wards.

“On your face, this is a complex mixture of benevolence and institutionalization in the post-slavery world, which we call segregation,” he said.

In his letter, university and medical executives called Johns Hopkins ’personal legacy“ complex and controversial ”. More research was needed, they said, before any “definite conclusions” could be drawn about the consequences of his slavery for the institutions he created.

Professor Jones said the broader project he led, called “Hard Histories at Hopkins,” deals with how the past informs controversial issues about the present, such as the university’s controversial plan to create an armed private police force. (The plan was suspended in July following protests against racial justice.)

He considered it important for Black-Baltimoreans to be seen as the central audience for the research. “This is great community writing that lives on a legacy of slavery, racism and inequality,” he said.

The revelations of Johns Hopkins ’slavery could be a reputable blow to the university. But the real “difficult history,” he said, was born of slaves who were listed on census forms even without the dignity of the name.

“We must not forget that,” he said. – Here’s the tragedy. That’s why we have to break it.