Sixteen months after making global headlines with an announcement that founder Johns Hopkins owned slaves, Johns Hopkins University has updated a biography of the 19th-century business tycoon on its website, revising the language in what a university official described as “minor edits” to the information about Hopkins’ relationship with slavery.
Prominent scholars who pushed back against the school’s 2020 announcement welcomed this week’s change, saying that while it was a step in the right direction, it didn’t go far enough.
The university said Wednesday that its “perspective and straightforward approach to presenting the evidence and ongoing research regarding our founder and slaveholding has not changed.”
In an email sent to members of the Hopkins community in 2020, University President Ron Daniels and others announced that researchers at the school had determined Hopkins — long believed to have been a staunch abolitionist — headed a Baltimore household that included at least five enslaved people, one person who was counted in the 1840 census and four people counted in the 1850 census.
Martha S. Jones, a professor and specialist in African American history who led the research effort, said that the findings made it certain the founder owned the enslaved people, since it is known that census enumerators would have asked not just about the presence of enslaved household members, but also about who owned them.
For much of the time since, the university’s website has included the statement that “recently discovered records offer strong evidence that Johns Hopkins had held enslaved people in his home until at least the mid-1800s.”
The version on the university’s website Wednesday read: “New research has uncovered census records that indicate enslaved people were among the individuals living and laboring in Johns Hopkins’ home in 1840 and 1850, with the latter document denoting Johns Hopkins as the slaveholder.”
Andy Green, a university spokesman, said in a statement that Hopkins Retrospective, a universitywide project to document the history of the institution, published an update on the research in January following a December symposium, “and we recently made minor edits to a few other institutional sites to make sure the language about the work is consistent.”
But critics of the first report heralded the change as a step forward for a university they say “jumped the gun” in 2020 when it asserted that Hopkins didn’t merely have more complex dealings with slavery than was long believed, but also personally enslaved people.
Former Maryland State Archivist Ed Papenfuse and Sydney Van Morgan, the director of the international studies program at Johns Hopkins, were among the scholars who argued in a paper published last May that while unearthing the census records was important, the documents could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Among other things, Papenfuse said that while enumerators counted enslaved and free people between the years of 1790 and 1850, it was not until 1860 that they were tasked with determining who owned enslaved people.
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“Employment and living arrangements for enslaved people could be especially complicated in Baltimore,” wrote the scholars, who are part of what they call the Johns Hopkins History Project, in their paper. “An enslaved individual could be owned by one person, live with another person, and work for a third person.”
An updated version of their work, “Seeking the Truth: Johns Hopkins and Slavery,” is on the Open Science Framework website.
While the findings “don’t exclude the possibility that Hopkins owned people,” Papenfuse said in June, the known evidence “does not demonstrate it as fact.”
The group called for Hopkins to remove language from its website that asserted “absolutely” that the founder owned people.
Members say they have watched carefully for updates. Van Morgan termed the change a “softening” of the university’s position.
“The university is no longer claiming that their census evidence is ‘strong evidence,’ and they have eliminated the statement that Johns Hopkins ‘held slaves in his home until at least the mid-1800s,’” she said.
“The new language can be interpreted as implying that Johns Hopkins probably owned slaves, which is unfortunate,” Van Morgan added. “But it also says that the university is seeking a more nuanced and complex picture, and that’s a positive thing.”