Johns Hopkins University (Courtesy photo)

By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter

For more than a century, the philanthropist Johns Hopkins, founder of two Baltimore pillars, Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been touted as an abolitionist, an anti-slavery crusader who was, “a man (beyond his time) who knew no race.” 

But, that narrative of Hopkins as abolitionist and emancipator has been perhaps reduced to mythology in the wake of research published recently by the university named for him.

The Hopkins biography indicates his Quaker family freed their slaves in 1807, when Johns Hopkins was 12-years old. And subsequently, up until the time he founded the school that bears his name in 1876, Hopkins was thought to be a zealous abolitionist, so much so he was described as being an “abolitionist before the word was even invented.”

Now, his university brings forward research that shows Hopkins actually owned at least five enslaved men; one in 1840 and four others in 1850 according to Census records unearthed by a team of Hopkins researchers, led by history professor Martha Jones, the school’s Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor.

“…Hopkins himself was an Abolitionist Quaker, the implication being he had never had slaves. And it’s safe to say we never questioned that story, we never interrogated it. We never, I think, had any particular reason to as far as I can see, until very recently when this Census return comes to light,” Jones said.

“It doesn’t fit with the story that has been told since the 19 teens and we begin to take it apart and investigate it. But, the short answer is the story we have told for a long time was written in part by us and part by Hopkins’ descendants and we didn’t question it until now.”

The Census data identifying Hopkins as a slave owner was specifically unearthed through the work that produced “Hopkins Retrospective” an initiative embarked upon by the school re-examining its history according to Hopkins University President Ron Daniels.

“The archivist Allison Seyler…who has been leading this project got wind in the spring that Johns Hopkins’ name turned up on the so-called slave schedule, which is attached to the 1850 Census and there were four enslaved people associated with him,” said Daniels.

 “And it was that finding that then caused us to embark upon a much deeper investigation of his and his family’s relationship to slaveholding. And that’s when almost immediately upon finding this artifact, I went to Prof. Jones and I asked her if she would lead the effort to investigate this, to verify this and ultimately to consider other questions related to the finding that the university and health system should know.

One of the questions that seems linked to the revelation that the school’s founder actually owned slaves regards the land the Homewood campus sits upon and how it was acquired. It is already known that land was worked by enslaved people. But, what is unclear is whether the school actually purchased the land or was it gifted to the university.

“This part of it isn’t directly related to Johns Hopkins. But, having said that…at one time when the lands were owned by the Carroll family, there were enslaved people on these lands. It appears that enslaved people were on these lands, not just when the Carroll family owned it, but also when the Wyman family owned it,” said Daniels. It was the Wyman family that possessed the land when Hopkins ultimately acquired it.

“So, there’s lots for us to learn on a parallel path around this connection to Hopkins University. But, this part of it at least doesn’t necessarily implicate Johns Hopkins per se,” Daniels added.

“How did this narrative become our truth?”

Further, how has the narrative of Hopkins the abolitionist informed individuals and institutions whose largesse to the school for more than a century has contributed profoundly to its status as a world-class university?

Greater context for these questions may come through a broader conversation regarding the history of higher education in Baltimore and Maryland.

“Yes, it did help them (Hopkins) portray the founder as an abolitionist as well as him wanting the hospital to “serve the poor” who, at that time were the newly emancipated Afrikans,” said Ray Winbush, research professor and director of the Institute of Urban Research at Morgan State University, in an email to the AFRO.

“This story, like the “recently discovered” Georgetown University story about universities using enslaved people to save their institutions, build their buildings and cultivate their crops is at the core of reparations. The answer is…they (Hopkins) should pay reparations, which could take the form of finding out who the enslaved were and compensating their descendants. A much easier task would be to set aside scholarships and an endowed chair (for faculty) for a given period of years for American Afrikan students to matriculate at Hopkins as well as a researcher to investigate all aspects of Black life in the history of Hopkins and Baltimore City,” added Winbush.

We’ve found in the reparations struggle that institutions simply lie about their history. Johns Hopkins apparently is no exception…because I believe on further research, we’ll discover that this was simply a well-kept secret for decades and perhaps a century.”

It seems clear the Hopkins revelations will lead to important conversations within the academic community and beyond.

“We’ll do our best to take a look at best practices from other institutions and how they have grappled with difficult history and been faithful to the exploration of that history and use that in terms of how we move forward at Hopkins,” said Daniels.

“We’re going to be rigorous in our commitment to transparency here.”

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor