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The discovery that Hopkins founder enslaved people was not a surprise to many in Baltimore

The revelation by Johns Hopkins University that its founder and namesake enslaved people in the decades before the Civil War shattered a nearly century-old myth for many students, alumni and employees of the university and medical system.

But the news announced Wednesday came as little surprise to many others in Baltimore, given Hopkins’ history of experimentation on its primarily low-income, Black neighbors without their consent; the university’s suspended plan to create its own private police force; and the displacement of many Black neighbors for redevelopment around the hospital.

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“You take that history that is real, that Black people have lived through in Baltimore for generations, then you filter how they would view the institution and how they view the founder through that history,” said Lawrence Brown, a former associate professor at the Morgan State University School of Community Health and Policy.

“If the belief is, we don’t believe he was a Quaker abolitionist, based on this history, you wouldn’t be surprised based on what was announced yesterday.”

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The mere fact that the myth of Hopkins as a staunch abolitionist stood unquestioned for 90 years — despite records showing he owned at least five enslaved men — “helps illuminate why there is such skepticism of the medical enterprise within the Black community,” Brown said.

Anthony Singleton, Hopkins’ sophomore class president, recalled this week how a campus guide had once touted the university’s abolitionist namesake during his tour as a prospective student several years ago.

Singleton, who is Black, said he didn’t necessarily decide to apply to Johns Hopkins because of that detail, but he liked knowing it. When the mechanical engineering major learned that none of it was true this week, the first thought that popped into his mind was “oh, that sucks.”

“It was a letdown,” Singleton said.

University historians have learned that Johns Hopkins, who founded the university and hospital that bear his name, was an owner of slaves.
University historians have learned that Johns Hopkins, who founded the university and hospital that bear his name, was an owner of slaves. (Baltimore Sun)

In the day following the announcement, Singleton and other student government representatives have jumped on phone calls to discuss what should come next. It’s still early, he said, but some student leaders hope this will be a unifying moment for the university.

“It was a terrible thing that happened, but look how far have we have come,” Singleton said. “I don’t think this should be a divisive time. And I think there should be space for people to disagree.”

Still, the Oklahoma native had questions: How had the founder of the university undergone such a swift identity shift from abolitionist to enslaver?

City Council President Nick Mosby, a Democrat who grew up in Northeast Baltimore, was not shocked that Hopkins’ founder owned enslaved people in the 1840s and 1850s.

“Wealth at that time was literally built on the backs of Black people,” Mosby said. “Black people were looked at as tools, they were looked at as property. That’s how people built wealth.”

Mosby stopped short of calling on Hopkins to change its name, which Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels has said it will not do. But the news showed how deeply ingrained slavery’s roots remain in the country, Mosby said. Most major U.S. institutions with long enough histories have some tie to it, he said.

“It’s really just the normalization of white supremacy that we all have come to adopt in every corner of American society,” Mosby said. “There’s a debate of ‘How do we honor dishonorable people?’ I don’t understand that philosophy.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott did not respond to requests for comment.

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The Rev. Kobi Little, a member of the university’s Society of Black Alumni, said “absolutely no one” in the group was surprised by the revelation. He applauded university leaders for “telling the truth” about a fact obscured for so long.

“You can’t make reparations for something that you won’t admit,” Little said.

The 1994 graduate remembers a time when he and other Black students staged a sit-in to protest the university’s only form of recognition for Black History Month — a campus library display featuring the story of a white family that freed the people they had enslaved in a moment of guilt.

“Even when we were under the understanding Johns Hopkins was an abolitionist who didn’t enslave people, the university still had a difficult history with race,” Little said.

Little now serves as president of the NAACP’s Baltimore chapter and said the organization stands ready to facilitate dialogue and help the university chart a course of action that makes reparations.

“Now that they know the truth, what will they do with the truth?” he asked.

The discovery follows other revelations about Hopkins spanning decades that have led to an uneasy relationship between one of the U.S.’s perennially top-ranked hospital and university systems and its Baltimore neighbors.

The family of Henrietta Lacks, a Turner Station woman whose cells Hopkins used without consent in research, leading to decades of medical advances, still has not received compensation, according to her son. Her so-called “HeLa” cells have become the most widely used human cells in scientific research today.

A jury in 2019 awarded a $1.84 million judgement to a woman who sued the Kennedy Kreiger Institute, a Hopkins partner, over a 1990s study that aimed to test whether less expensive remedies could prevent harm to children from lead paint — without properly informing their families of the risks.

Hopkins came under fire for another lead-paint study in 2000, in which researchers spread fertilizer made from a combination of human and industrial wastes on the lawns of nine East Baltimore homes to study its effects on lead poisoning.

The university’s recent effort to create a private police force for its campuses drew protests from those concerned about a disproportionate effect on Black people, prompting officials to pause the initiative.

Daniels called the knowledge that the institution’s long-championed founder owned slaves “painful and distressing” in an interview with The Sun.

Along with its announcement Wednesday, Hopkins said it will host a virtual town hall meeting at 11 a.m. Friday to provide Hopkins community members and neighbors a chance “to ask questions of our historians and to offer your advice and ideas for the path forward.”

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But as the U.S. begins to roll out COVID vaccines nationwide, the historically fraught relationship of Hopkins’ East Baltimore hospital with its Black neighbors — many of whom were displaced in order to expand the hospital and redevelop the neighborhoods around it — “hurts the response to the public health challenge before us,” said Brown, the former Morgan State professor.

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“All medical encounters are based on one word: trust,” Brown said. “Are these systems trustworthy? That is the question for the vaccine, and that is the main question for Hopkins.

“If you have that legacy of experimentation on people who didn’t give consent for it and urban renewal uprooting communities, then what will make me, if I’m a member of that community, trust in vaccines that are produced by institutions like Hopkins?”

Some in East Baltimore refer to the medical campus as “the plantation,” more than a century and a half after the U.S. outlawed slavery, Brown said.

“It’s not just slavery, it’s the ‘afterlife of slavery,’” he said, quoting a phrase coined by author Saidiyah Hartman. “Are you going to do things concretely to make amends and repair the damage that was done?”

Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, a former president of the NAACP’s Baltimore branch and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is another who worries about how the well-documented divide between Hopkins and its Black neighbors could harm efforts to vaccinate the community in the coming year.

“I think there’s a direct correlation between these two issues,” he said.

Cheatham, 70, said he hopes to address his concerns with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, on a conference call for ministers next week organized by the National Action Network.

His top question for Fauci: “How are they going to put that vaccine in our poor, Black communities?”

The Rev. Donte Hickman, pastor of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, has worked with Hopkins on initiatives such as a 120,000-square-foot health and wellness center.

But he said the institution needs to focus more investment on “empowering, transforming and liberating low-income communities, especially those that immediately neighbor the hospital and university systems.”

“The university and health system need to go beyond romanticizing charity and really investing in social justice that will make a difference toward people living healthy and quality lives,” Hickman said.

Too many of the neighborhoods surrounding both the university and hospital campuses remain in a state of “economic depravity,” the Southern Baptist Church pastor said.

“Johns Hopkins today can break the chains of yesterday by prioritizing its investment, its partnerships and eradicating the bureaucracy that really promulgates the health and economic disparities in the neighborhoods surrounding it,” Hickman said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Lillian Reed, Jonathan M. Pitts and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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