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‘Jumping the gun’ on Johns Hopkins? Researchers say there’s no evidence university founder owned enslaved people.

One day last winter, officials at Baltimore’s most prestigious research university made the kind of announcement that can cause even a powerful worldwide institution to reassess its long-standing self-image.

A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the officials said at a news conference, had determined its founder, merchant and philanthropist Johns Hopkins, owned enslaved people. It was a finding that contradicted his reputation as an abolitionist who founded and aided institutions that served Black people.

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Now, another group of researchers has come to a different conclusion.

Former Maryland State Archivist Ed Papenfuse and Sydney Van Morgan, who directs the international studies program at Hopkins, are the principal authors of “Johns Hopkins and Slavery,” a 71-page paper that finds evidence for the bombshell assertion lacking.

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“The available documentation, including relevant tax records, does not support the university’s claim that Johns Hopkins was a slaveholder,” concludes the paper, available at Hopkins Family History Blog (thehouseofhopkins.com), a website the group keeps about the founder.

Johns Hopkins, who founded the Baltimore university and hospital that bear his name.
Johns Hopkins, who founded the Baltimore university and hospital that bear his name. (Baltimore Sun)

But the new study has not changed the mind of Martha S. Jones, a Hopkins professor who specializes in African American history. She led the researchers who concluded last year that the university’s founder owned other people.

“I remain of the view that Mr. Hopkins held enslaved people in his household at least in 1840 and 1850 as the census slave schedules reported,” she wrote from France, where she is vacationing, in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “I have not seen evidence to the contrary.”

Papenfuse believes the university “absolutely jumped the gun” in making its announcements.

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“The assertion that Johns Hopkins was a slave owner is not proven,” said Papenfuse, who is an adjunct professor of history at Hopkins. “It’s a mistake on the part of the university to make that assertion when they have no documentary proof.”

He said the findings don’t exclude the possibility that Hopkins owned people, but he reiterates that the body of known evidence does not demonstrate it as fact.

The Papenfuse group has asked the university to remove from its website any “absolute” assertions that Hopkins owned people.

University President Ron Daniels could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but university spokeswoman Karen Lancaster said all legitimate research on the matter is welcome and should be considered part of what Daniels has said will be a long and illuminating search for the truth.

Jones conducted her research as director of the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project, a multidisciplinary initiative to “examine the role that racism and discrimination have played at Johns Hopkins.”

Members of her team — including Allison Seyler, the program manager of Hopkins Retrospective, a universitywide research project on the institution’s history, and Winston Tabb, the university’s dean of libraries and archives — found evidence for their assertions in U.S. census records.

Entries on the founder showed he lived at an address on Franklin Street with one enslaved person in 1840 and at the same address as four enslaved people a decade later at his Baltimore estate, Clifton.

Papenfuse, Van Morgan, and their co-authors, Samuel B. Hopkins, a retired lawyer and descendant of the founder’s brother, and Stan Becker, an emeritus professor of public health, do not dispute those findings. In fact, it was Papenfuse who first happened on the census entries and mentioned them to students in a seminar.

But the groups interpret the findings differently.

Jones asserted that census enumerators — who went door to door to gather data — would have asked household members not just about the presence of enslaved people, but who owned them. She said that meant Hopkins, who is listed as head of the household in both censuses, owned the enslaved people.

Papenfuse counters that while enumerators did count enslaved and free people between the years of 1790 and 1850, it was not until 1860 that they were tasked with determining who might have owned enslaved people.

Papenfuse said there were many kinds of relationships between African Americans and the white people who owned, employed or lived with them. Baltimore in 1840 had a large free Black population of 18,000 people compared with its enslaved population of 3,200, census records show.

“Employment and living arrangements for enslaved people could be especially complicated in Baltimore,” Papenfuse and his fellow authors wrote. “An enslaved individual could be owned by one person, live with another person, and work for a third person.”

It’s impossible to discern what role any of the African Americans listed at Hopkins’ addresses might have played, he said, and the paper points to supplemental information that its authors say suggests a wide range of other possibilities.

For one thing, they argue, Hopkins is known to have purchased at least one enslaved person — his coachman, James Jones — to set him free. That could explain the presence of an enslaved person in 1840, they said.

Also, it’s known that Hopkins took care of his brother, Samuel Hopkins Jr., a failed businessman, by putting him up at his home on Franklin Street. Samuel Hopkins Jr. was recorded as living there in 1840. And he appears to have been expelled from the Maryland Quaker Meeting for owning one enslaved person in 1839.

“Everything points to the more likely scenario that Samuel was the ‘owner,’ not Johns Hopkins,” said Van Morgan, adding that similar questions surround the circumstances of Johns Hopkins’ life in 1850 — and no documents have been found to prove Johns Hopkins owned people.

To Jones, while it may not be clear what Hopkins’ relationship was with the five enslaved people who were listed as members of his households — “Perhaps he owned them. Perhaps he hired or rented them. Perhaps he bartered or borrowed their forced labor,” she wrote — it is unarguable that he “was complicit with an institution that traded in human beings” and “did so despite his capacity to hire free workers for wages. He did so despite the widely understood critique of slavery leveled by abolitionists, including Baltimore’s own Frederick Douglass.”

Jones and Papenfuse’s team agree it matters whether Hopkins owned enslaved people, both for developing a fuller sense of the university’s founding and for determining how it should make decisions moving forward.

“I hope we can create a more nuanced, better and fuller appreciation of Johns Hopkins the person, rather than what may become very much a counter-myth of who he was,” said Papenfuse, who is working on a book about the founder and his business dealings.

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Lancaster said the search for the truth will include more work by Jones and her team and a symposium in the fall on the findings about Johns Hopkins.

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“As we said [in December], the university decided to share this new information at an early stage in order to make the ongoing process of further research and understanding inclusive of the Hopkins community and our neighbors in Baltimore,” Lancaster said. “We hoped that the public would contribute to this research, and we are grateful for the efforts being undertaken to dig deeper. We look forward to hearing a full range of ideas and perspectives.”

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