The narrative has stood as an unquestioned landmark of Baltimore history for at least nine decades: Johns Hopkins, the businessman who founded the university and hospital that bear his name, was more than just a big-time philanthropist. He was an abolitionist, a civic leader who actively opposed slavery and racism in all its forms.
Now a different picture has emerged. University historians have learned that the man who gave birth to the institution was an owner of slaves himself.
A team of researchers led by Johns Hopkins professor Martha S. Jones, who specializes in African American history, has unearthed U.S. Census returns revealing that Hopkins — whose Quaker father and grandfather have long been thought to have freed their slaves — led a Baltimore household that included at least five enslaved men, one in 1840 and four in 1850.
Because census enumerators would have asked household members not just about the presence of enslaved people in their home but also about who owned them, Jones says it’s a certainty that Hopkins, who is listed as the head, was in fact their owner.
University officials made the findings public in an email to the Hopkins community Wednesday after Jones and the two other researchers on her team — Allison Seyler, the program manager of Hopkins Retrospective, a universitywide research project on the institution’s history, and Winston Tabb, dean of its libraries and archives — spent months verifying the claims.
If the findings affect others the way they have affected University President Ron Daniels, they promise to reverberate through the university community and beyond in the coming weeks and months.
“It was painful and distressing [to learn],” Daniels said in an interview with The Sun. “I, like so many of the people at Johns Hopkins, have taken great inspiration from the story of Mr. Hopkins’ life, the understanding we’ve had about his childhood, the freeing of slaves by his parents, and that arc of his life that seems to be quite extraordinary — including visionary and generous bequests to create the hospital, the university and an orphanage for African American children.
“So equally, to learn of the contradictions and complexities of the story was shocking,” he added.
Word of the discovery began quietly to circulate in university circles in May after Seyler — acting on a hunch conveyed by a reliable source, the retired longtime Maryland State Archivist, Ed Papenfuse — located the 1850 entry in an online search.
Because the State Archives building in Annapolis was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, as it remains today, Seyler worked through FamilySearch, a genealogical website operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“That’s where I stumbled upon the record of the 1850 Slave Schedule” — a part of the U.S. Census then dedicated to chronicling where enslaved people lived — “that showed Johns Hopkins with four enslaved people in his household,” she says.
It provides little information about the men other than their ages — 50, 45, 25 and 18.
She then worked backward to find corroborating evidence — city directories, maps, neighbors’ records — to confirm the Johns Hopkins on the schedule was Johns Hopkins the founder.
“It was jarring,” she says. “When you work at [Johns Hopkins] and learn the history of the university, and then find something so antithetical to what you’ve learned, it’s a bit shocking.”
Daniels, apprised of the news, asked Jones, a celebrated professor and the author of multiple award-winning books on African American history, to join the research effort. Tabb helped the pair navigate Hopkins’ vast research holdings as well as he could, given that the physical facilities were shuttered, as they are now. Tabb said the team is looking forward to uncovering more information when Maryland’s archives reopen.
It’s clear that Hopkins, who died at age 78 in 1873, was in fact born and grew up at Whitehall, a 500-acre tobacco plantation in Anne Arundel County once owned by his grandfather, who also bore the name Johns, and later by his father, Samuel.
The younger Johns Hopkins appears to have left the farm in his teens, moved to Baltimore and built a breathtakingly successful career over more than 50 years as a merchant, banker and investor.
Upon his death, we also know he left what was the largest philanthropic bequest in American history at the time — holdings some value at about $7 million, the equivalent of more than $150 million today.
Hopkins specified in his will that the hospital must make facilities available to people of all races, an extraordinary request at a time when slavery had only recently been banned in Maryland and beyond.
He also left $1 million to be divided among heirs, including generous bequests to three African American servants, and to establish the Johns Hopkins Colored Children Orphan Asylum.
It was “an extraordinary amount of money to give to benefit community members regardless of color,” Papenfuse says.
Such overtures notwithstanding, the university and hospital have at times come into conflict with the largely African American neighborhoods around them. Expansion and redevelopment efforts dating to the 1950s have left hundreds of residents displaced from their homes, for example, and the university in June suspended a plan to establish a campus police force in the face of charges it would adversely affect minorities.
For a man with such a towering public profile, there’s precious little in the way of original documentation on Hopkins’ life. Most historians agree either that he destroyed what papers he did have at the end of his life (not an uncommon practice) or that they were destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.
Into this breach stepped an adoring family member. Helen Hopkins Thom, the granddaughter of Hopkins’ older brother, Joseph, wrote a collection of reminiscences about the great man’s life in 1929.
“Johns Hopkins: A Silhouette,” while an undeniably good read, suffered from its total lack of objectivity, Jones says, and established many of the perceptions about Hopkins and his family that have lasted for generations.
In their seven months of research, Jones says, she and her team were unable to verify many of the claims Thoms made central to the Hopkins family legend — that Johns Hopkins the elder manumitted, or freed, all the slaves in his care in deference to his Quaker beliefs in the late 1700s, for instance, that Samuel did the same in 1807, or that Samuel’s action had a deep and lasting impact on young Johns’ character and future.
The team unearthed a more complicated picture. Hopkins’ grandfather, for example, manumitted nine adult slaves in 1778, but he also transformed 32 enslaved young adults into “term slaves,” which meant they had to serve him into their 20s. He still had 28 slaves when he died in 1784.
Samuel, for his part, made use of the bound labor of at least two free Black children, and no solid evidence has emerged that he freed the one enslaved person he inherited from his father.
Johns Hopkins, meanwhile, cannot yet be shown to have ever manumitted slaves, and the team found evidence he had sought to acquire enslaved people in payment of debts.
None of these actions would have been unusual in mid-19th Century Baltimore, where the status of working freed Blacks often amounted to temporary slavery or other states of near-bondage, but it does suggest that the notion of Hopkins as an “abolitionist” — which Jones says would have meant he was part of a particular radical movement that favored the immediate and total liberation of slaves — was a myth.
“Helen Hopkins Thom was not a historian,” Jones says. “Her version of the family and of Johns Hopkins himself caught on and was relied upon and repeated and promoted, even by the university. We did not subject it to scholarly or scientific scrutiny until now.”
The Hopkins findings emerge as dozens of other colleges and universities — including Brown, Columbia, the University of Virginia and Georgetown — are already embarked on initiatives aimed at acknowledging, exploring and promoting discussion about the role slavery played in their growth and development.
Katrina Caldwell, the vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Johns Hopkins, said “origin stories” affect how people view institutions, including whether to become part of them in the first place.
A student or faculty member who came to Hopkins believing in one origin story, only to learn the truth is very different, can face a jarring adjustment, she said, and community members who have “a deep sense of justice” are likely to experience reactions ranging from “grave disappointment to anger and frustration.”
Caldwell said the findings “do provide us with another data point to reinforce the importance of institutions taking a hard look at themselves.”
To Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP and a 1994 Johns Hopkins graduate, it’s “deeply painful and saddening to learn that the truth has been misrepresented in history for so long.
“In an age of alternative facts, this moment of truth telling is instructive not just for the entities that bear Johns Hopkins’ name, but for the entire world,” he wrote in an email. “Whitewashing injustice and crimes against humanity does not fix the problems caused by those actions. Healing and redemption only come through substantive recompense, repair and commitment to a different course of action.”
Little called for the university to begin a healing process by “identifying and making reparations to the descendants” of the men Hopkins enslaved.
As faculty members continue to research the matter, Johns Hopkins University will offer platforms for community members to process the news over the coming weeks and months, Daniels said, starting with a virtual town hall at 11 a.m. Friday in which participants will be encouraged to ask the historians about the findings.
He’s aware the news will affect community members in a range of ways, that some will wonder why it’s important to raise these issues at all, given the time that has passed, and others will be feel betrayed and hurt and need answers.
Nonetheless, Daniels says the university has a duty to explore the story of its founder and his times as deeply as is necessary to come to terms with both in all their contradictions and complexity.
“I think we’re duty bound to correct the record and share this,” he says. “I’m confident that confronting this finding with a determination to get to the truth, to learn and grow from it, will make us a stronger institution.”