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Johns Hopkins University promises to further research institution’s ties to systemic racism in town hall

After revealing this week that Johns Hopkins University’s founder and namesake was a slave owner, leaders of the university and medical system held a town hall Friday during which they promised to further investigate the institution’s relationship with systemic racism.

The virtual event represented the start of an effort by the institution to solicit feedback from students, faculty, staff, alumni and Baltimore residents on how it might research the school’s ties to slavery and seek to establish a more equitable future. Attendees sent their questions to Katrina Caldwell, the university’s diversity and inclusion vice provost, who in turn asked leaders about what the recent findings mean for the institution and how it may move forward from here.

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University President Ronald Daniels said during the town hall that he’s experienced waves of “distress, despondency [and] pain” since learning of the people the institution’s founder enslaved, but has come to a point where he is “fundamentally optimistic” about what the school may build from the discovery.

“As we inch ever closer to the present, this history becomes more and more important for us, and plays a role in guiding our current decision making,” Daniels said. “This is why I think it’s really important that we embrace the opportunity to grapple very vigorously with all dimensions of this history.”

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For nearly a century, Hopkins was widely regarded as a generous philanthropist who opposed slavery and racism. But after months of study, a team of researchers at the institution has verified that the university’s founder led a Baltimore household that included at least five enslaved men in the decades leading up to the Civil War — shattering the long-held belief that his Quaker father and grandfather had freed the people they had enslaved.

As it turns out, that narrative can be traced to a glowing memoir written by Hopkins’ great niece in 1929. That fact — and its incongruence with the research university’s core credo that the truth shall set you free — has been difficult to reconcile for Daniels.

“For a university that is supposed to be skeptical, supposed to be discerning, supposed to be dedicated to truth seeking, we embraced something very readily that now turns out does not appear to be true,” he said. “What does that say about us in our core mission around the exploration and curation of truth?”

Since the revelations were made public, Daniels and Kevin Sowers — president of the institution’s health system — both said they’ve received emails from faculty members, who expressed they weren’t surprised about the founder’s ties to slavery. And in light of the institution’s conflicted history with its primarily low-income, Black neighbors, others have shared similar feelings.

But Daniels and Sowers highlighted ongoing efforts to promote equity at the institution and in its surrounding community. A university task force is developing a “road map” for diversity efforts the school should make moving forward, and Sowers said the health system has committed itself to diversifying its leadership team.

Daniels said that the institution will continue contributing to the city’s public school system and taking steps to hire people from Baltimore’s most “distressed” neighborhoods, among other efforts.

Daniels said cracks began to emerge in Hopkins’ misconstrued biography when the school received a tip late last spring that records from the 1850 U.S. Census indicated that the founder was a slaveholder. In responding to a question about why it took so long for the university to share that finding, Daniels said researchers did not want to do so until they were “absolutely confident” that they were accurate.

Martha S. Jones, a Hopkins history professor who led the research effort into the founder’s ties to slavery, said unknowns remain, including the fate of the five men enslaved by Hopkins. The records that she and her team have dug up only include the age, color and sex of the enslaved individuals — not their names.

But Jones, herself the descendant of enslaved people, said she continues to look for the essential needles in the haystacks that may allow her and other researchers to piece together information about the lives and experiences of the five men and their descendants.

“Our questions are not only about this early chapter, but about the legacies of slavery, the legacies of anti-Black racism and the degree to which those dynamics have and continue to shape our work, our lives and the contours of our community,” she said. “While not all answers lie in the past — I have to say that with humility, as a historian — I do believe that the stories we tell about ourselves matter.”

Down the road, Daniels said the university would contemplate creating an event of some kind to acknowledge the people Hopkins enslaved. However, he indicated that the school may want to learn more about those individuals — and perhaps even their descendants — before holding such a ceremony.

Jones gently pushed back on his statement, saying that she would argue the school already knows enough to acknowledge and honor the enslaved men, “even if we never learn another thing about them.”

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Later on in the town hall, she left those listening with a plea.

“Please join us,” she said. “We cannot do the work alone. We cannot meet this challenge alone.”

To learn more about the research of Jones and her team, visit retrospective.jhu.edu.

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