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Hopkins declared that its founder enslaved people. It might not be true. Now what? | COMMENTARY

A photograph of Johns Hopkins, founder of the university and hospital that bear his name, appeared in a December university video reporting that the merchant and philanthropist had enslaved people in antebellum Baltimore.
A photograph of Johns Hopkins, founder of the university and hospital that bear his name, appeared in a December university video reporting that the merchant and philanthropist had enslaved people in antebellum Baltimore. (Johns Hopkins University)

Let’s be clear: In December, Johns Hopkins University declared its long-gone founder a 19th Century enslaver. Ron Daniels, the JHU president, reported in a video that researchers had found “strong documentary evidence” that Johns Hopkins owned at least five people.

The findings were listed as “preliminary,” and a Hopkins official who appeared in the video said something vague about the university being “just at the beginning of this process.” But the upshot was clear: The Quaker business owner and philanthropist, who supposedly adhered to the abolitionism of his faith, was the owner of human beings in antebellum Baltimore. “It was painful and distressing [to learn],” Daniels said in an interview with The Sun.

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The headline on our story of Dec. 9 was definitive: “Records prove Johns Hopkins University founder owned slaves, shattering belief he was a staunch abolitionist.”

Most people who read news reports about the findings — or Hopkins researcher Martha Jones’ op-ed in The Washington Post — would have come away with Daniels’ conclusion: Johns Hopkins was not a man ahead of his time, but of his time — in short, a wealthy holder of enslaved people and hypocrite.

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Now, there’s a new, deeper report from another set of researchers who appear to be at least as diligent, but far more cautious, than the Hopkins team that reached the original conclusion. This new report says the case made by the first team was weak, that there are “no property records, wills, bills of sale, deeds of manumission, first person accounts or tax records” to corroborate the claim that Hopkins enslaved people.

He might have been the owner of a Franklin Street house and a mansion where enslaved people lived in 1840 and 1850, but that doesn’t prove Hopkins owned them.

As those familiar with the story of Frederick Douglass know, he was once the property of a couple on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but he lived with a relative of the couple in Baltimore and was employed as a laborer in shipbuilding in Fells Point. In the decades before the Civil War, enslaved people were commonly forced into such arrangements.

The new report on Hopkins notes that census takers in the mid-19th Century recorded the owner of a property and its inhabitants, including enslaved people, but, significantly, did not record who owned them.

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“The federal censuses in 1840 and 1850 made no distinction between ownership and employment,” the new report says. “Census enumerators in these years were not required to establish that the head of household or the property owner was also the owner of any enslaved residents. It was very common in Baltimore to hire enslaved laborers on a temporary basis, and Johns Hopkins had a history of employing Blacks in his homes and businesses. Slaves who had been ‘hired out’ were normally enumerated with their employers not owners.”

The researchers, including former Maryland state archivist Ed Papenfuse and Hopkins professor Sydney Van Morgan, noted that a similarly complicated situation existed at Hopkins’ Clifton Park estate. By 1850, it was a bustling place with numerous residents, contractors and workers. Again, Hopkins was listed in the census as the owner of people, but, again, that doesn’t prove he was an enslaver. “It is possible that any one of many individuals living at Clifton owned or hired the four enslaved persons [listed] on the 1850 slave schedule,” Papenfuse and his team say.

Papenfuse and Van Morgan quote the instructions given to census takers in 1850: “The person in whose family, or on whose plantation, the slave is found to be employed, is to be considered the owner — the principal object being to get the number of enslaved people, and not that of masters or owners.”

This doesn’t completely exonerate Hopkins. As Jones told The Sun this week, he appears to have been “complicit with an institution that traded in human beings” by allowing enslaved people in his households or employed on his properties. If he did so knowingly, you could say Hopkins was at least tolerant of slavery, even as his faith told him to oppose it in all forms.

But that doesn’t make him an enslaver, as he was declared to be in December.

A distinction without a difference? I don’t think so. If you’re going to declare that someone was the actual owner of other human beings, you better do what the late Baltimore Evening Sun reporter Nick Yengich advised: “Line up your duckies.”

In other words, you’d better have facts backing up facts. You’d better have proof.

Relying on the 1850 census to declare Johns Hopkins owned people, given what is known about how the census was conducted, puts the university in a muddle about whether its benefactor was, as Jones put it in her December oped, “party to slavery’s crime against humanity.” I mean, now what?

Johns Hopkins University is known for, in its president’s words, “truth-seeking” and “evidence-based discovery.” So it’s odd that “preliminary findings” were considered sufficient to support Daniels’ announcement in December.

The university says “other historians” reviewed the first report. But the second report, at 71 pages, raises such serious doubt about the “preliminary findings,” you have to wonder how those “other historians” missed the key points. The second report appears to provide the kind of vetting you’d expect from Johns Hopkins, the university. It’s what the original research should have had before anyone declared Johns Hopkins, the founder, an enslaver.

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