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When history is a fable: Distorted accounts of the lives of Johns Hopkins and other famous men have consequences, historians say

The Rev. Kobi Little, a Johns Hopkins University alum and now Baltimore NAACP president, speaks outside Milton S. Eisenhower Library at the Homewood campus.

When Kobi Little was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, he was curious to learn what events the school had planned to commemorate Black History Month.

The possible subjects, he says, were many. There was the story of Lillie May Carroll Jackson, the civil rights pioneer whose father descended from the slave-owning Carroll family, which owned the land that became the main campus. There was Levi Watkins Jr., the Black Johns Hopkins heart surgeon who knew and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. There was Baltimore’s own complex history of racial struggle.

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The only event Little heard of that February in 1993 was a library exhibit about the Birneys, a white family that freed its slaves during the 19th century.

“They could have talked about any number of amazing things,” says Little, now an ordained minister and president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. “The absurdity was that a tribute to Black history would consist of the actions of white people.”

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He helped lead a student protest that led to the display’s removal.

The Rev. Kobi Little, a Johns Hopkins University alumnus and now Baltimore NAACP president, stands Dec. 15, 2020, outside Milton S. Eisenhower Library at the Homewood campus.
The Rev. Kobi Little, a Johns Hopkins University alumnus and now Baltimore NAACP president, stands Dec. 15, 2020, outside Milton S. Eisenhower Library at the Homewood campus. (Karl Merton Ferron/Karl Merton Ferron)

Little says he recalled the story not to malign his alma mater, which he says has made notable progress toward fuller racial inclusiveness, but to offer perspective on what could become a pivotal moment in the university’s history.

Hopkins researchers went public this month with the finding that, according to U.S. census records, Johns Hopkins, the university’s founder — a man long revered as a bold abolitionist — was a slave owner.

The news flew in the face of beliefs about the founder that have been central to the school’s image, and Baltimore’s, for nearly a century.

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Some in the university community and beyond have downplayed the finding, arguing that it’s hardly news that a wealthy white man owned enslaved people in mid-19th century Baltimore. Others have said it shouldn’t erase the legacy of someone who left $7 million in his will to create a university and, among other things, start an orphanage for Black children. The contrast between narrative and reality has left some stunned and hurt.

But to Little and others, what hurts most is that a distorted portrayal of Hopkins survived so long in the first place.

“When you don’t have an accurate and inclusive history, it has a deep impact, from the way it malforms individuals’ psyches to the policy decisions we end up making and accepting,” he says. “If we don’t tell that full history, we spread the very kinds of prejudice that led to a false narrative in the first place.”

The question of historical storytelling — who writes it, what it emphasizes and what it leaves out — has preoccupied intellectuals for centuries.

It was in the 1700s that a French essayist, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, posed a question some historians still find interesting: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” An adage often attributed to Winston Churchill says that history is “written by the victors.”

Gilman Hall, pictured in 2010, was the first major building on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.
Gilman Hall, pictured in 2010, was the first major building on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

The findings on Johns Hopkins struck Jonathan Zimmerman particularly hard. A longtime history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he received his doctoral training at the Baltimore university.

Zimmerman has made a study of what can happen when the public accepts myth rather than history, and even he was swept up in the Hopkins narrative recently disproved by Hopkins history professor Martha S. Jones and her small team.

“Like a lot of other Hopkins grads, I had drunk the Kool-Aid,” he said. “Thank goodness for people like Martha Jones and those who are working with her. Without that, we’d just keep drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Zimmerman says it will be the work of historians to determine what, exactly, led to the creation of a narrative about Hopkins that was insufficiently complex, why it went largely unchallenged for so long, and what specific damage it has caused.

It certainly didn’t help that Helen Hopkins Thom, the founder’s adoring grandniece, wrote the 1929 book on which most of the lore is based. And it’s an open question, Zimmerman says, as to whether someone happened on the facts years ago and decided to keep them quiet.

The Rev. Kobi Little, an alumni of Johns Hopkins University and now Baltimore NAACP president, stands outside Milton S. Eisenhower Library at the Homewood campus.
The Rev. Kobi Little, an alumni of Johns Hopkins University and now Baltimore NAACP president, stands outside Milton S. Eisenhower Library at the Homewood campus. (Karl Merton Ferron/Karl Merton Ferron)

Johns Hopkins President Ron Daniels has said the university will investigate the matter — including the genesis of the narrative — wherever the research leads.

“As President Daniels noted when announcing this new information, finding out how the previous story about Mr. Hopkins went unchallenged and unverified since 1929 will be one of the areas of focus for our research,” spokeswoman Karen Lancaster said. “We have no indication that it was previously known but ignored or suppressed.”

The problem of incomplete history is hardly new on the American scene. For generations, traditional lore remembered figures from Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee mainly for the conquests they made. It took later generations of historians to explore the costs to others of their feats, and that has had consequences.

“Thanksgiving is the classic example,” Zimmerman said. “In elementary school, we teach that the Pilgrims came, the natives helped them learn how to grow things, and they had a great, lovely feast together.”

But, he added, we leave out the fact that, within a year, Myles Standish had killed and decapitated a native warrior and put his head on a stake outside of Plymouth colony.

“If you tell people that, the entire story around race in America takes on a different meaning. It’s a perfect example of how a myth can have an enormously distortive effect on how people look at their entire world.”

A similar dynamic is evident locally, according to one prominent Baltimore author.

Antero Pietila’s 2010 book, “Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” is considered a landmark examination of the factors that led to the demographic patterns now evident in the nation’s urban areas.

Pietila showed that the origins of white flight — the movement of millions of whites from increasingly diverse cities, including Baltimore, into the suburbs after World War II — could be traced to such factors as federal and local housing policies that were shaped by white supremacist attitudes.

For years, Pietila says, scarcity of research on the subject allowed explanations to take hold that were falsely tinged with racist stereotypes.

“For example, the tense and complicated relationship between the city and Baltimore County from the 1960s until recently was caused by the absence of a frank public discussion about the reasons for white flight,” Pietila said.

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“That, in turn, allowed county politicians to exploit anti-city resentments among those who felt that Blacks had pushed them out. I believe the whole region has been harmed,” he said.

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

In Johns Hopkins’ case, the distortion seems to have begun when Thom decided to gather a collection of reminiscences about her forebear and his upbringing.

In “Johns Hopkins: A Silhouette,” she wrote that his grandfather, also named Johns, enslaved people at the family plantation in Anne Arundel County, but freed them in 1778 as a matter of conscience, and that his father, Samuel, did the same, manumitting his slaves in 1807.

This, in her telling, inspired young Johns to grow up a fierce opponent of the institution of slavery — in her words, an abolitionist.

This year, though, Hopkins researchers discovered census returns from 1840 and 1850 that show the founder owned five enslaved men at his estate in what is now Baltimore’s Clifton Park.

They found evidence the elder Johns Hopkins freed nine enslaved people, but also that he transformed the status of 32 other people to that of “term slaves.” That kept them in servitude into their 20s. The researchers came across no sign of Samuel Hopkins manumitting anyone. And Jones, the history professor, says that however else the younger Johns Hopkins might have supported racial equity, he was no abolitionist.

“Our failure to know his story has delayed our efforts to reckon with and address [the university’s] origins in slavery, and it has kept us from joining what is a national reckoning with slavery across dozens of colleges and universities,” she said.

The Baltimore-born author and TV producer earned his bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins in 2001, and he says school representatives repeatedly shared the long-standing narrative with students.

He never bought it whole cloth — “If you have a basic understanding of American history, you know the complexity of those narratives,” he said — but it was still “hurtful and harmful to learn that the narrative we were told was not just inaccurate, but actually the opposite of reality.”

Moore, the author of The New York Times bestselling book “The Other Wes Moore” and a native of Baltimore, says growing up as an African American in such a “racially complicated” city by its very nature “forces a psychological question that takes actual work to overcome: the question of, ‘Do you belong there?’”

Moore is a veteran who did his military training at Fort Bragg, an Army post named for a Confederate officer. Moore later won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship, an honor established in the name of an ardent British colonialist.

For Moore, the Johns Hopkins findings completed that mind-boggling circuit.

“With this news, I realize that every institution that has helped to shape me as a young man was founded by or named after men whose fortunes and fates and legacies all came off the subjugation and the oppression of Black lives,” he says.

“We cannot underestimate the psychological twister that we are asking people of color to be able to endure as we continue to smile and move forward.”

Some observers are already gauging the damage the narrative around Hopkins may have done to the institution that bears his name.

To Bishop Douglas Miles, the effort by Daniels to be transparent with the new findings represents at least a step toward inclusiveness.

The African American community leader, a 1970 graduate, remembers such bitter times at the school as being turned away from a barbershop with a barber saying he didn’t “cut monkey hair”— and suspecting, along with his few Black classmates, that the school’s founder was not the social progressive he was made out to be.

Miles was critical of Hopkins for decades over its isolation from the rest of Baltimore, particularly the city’s Black community. But he says Daniels has made notable strides since he arrived in 2009, and his handling of the latest news is part of that.

“Though he is not perfect, I feel better about Johns Hopkins than when I graduated,” Miles says, “and I have not been an easy convert.”

Little believes the misleading origin story gave the university’s overwhelmingly white leadership a level of moral self-assurance that allowed it to remain less sensitive than it should have been toward the needs of Black students and citizens.

Had the university wrestled sooner with its founder’s legacy, he argues, its leaders might have been able to think more humanely when its interests came into conflict with those of its Black neighbors.

“I believe the narrative around Johns Hopkins gave cover to white people … to hide their white supremacist values and to claim that their actions, and those of the institution, were not racist or otherwise harmful,” he said. “After all, how can you argue? ‘The founder was an abolitionist and a great humanitarian.’”

Clifton Mansion, in what is now Northeast Baltimore, was Johns Hopkins' summer home.
Clifton Mansion, in what is now Northeast Baltimore, was Johns Hopkins' summer home. (Sun file photo)

Zimmerman, for his part, trusts Jones and other historians to do the slow, painstaking work of fleshing out the legacy of Hopkins, a man who, in many respects, we’re just getting to know.

To Moore, that can only improve America’s first research university and the world beyond its boundaries.

“Our mandate is to tell the truth about our history,” he said. “And it’s to fight like hell to build a more inclusive society than the one that Johns Hopkins actually lived in.”

This article has been updated following an additional interview with Bishop Douglas Miles to include further information about his experiences with the university.

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