Getting to the bottom of whether Johns Hopkins founder enslaved people matters, but addressing today’s injustices matters more | COMMENTARY

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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. New research now questions that determination.

From its earliest days, Maryland’s prosperity was built on the backs of enslaved people, and the burden of that unequal treatment has been shouldered by African Americans for generations. From the lynchings of nearly a century ago across this state to postwar redlining and the segregation of Black neighborhoods to the more contemporary recognition that the criminal justice system has disproportionately incarcerated people of color, it does not require a doctorate in history to recognize this sad inheritance. In that context, the ongoing investigations into whether Johns Hopkins himself enslaved people, as the university has said, or simply shared an address with them, as a new report by independent researchers suggests, are a valid effort to accurately document the past, but not necessarily earthshaking. The legacy of slavery weighs heavily on us all regardless of Hopkins’ role in it.

The personal history of the man whose bequests established Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital may be intriguing (and any attempt to appropriately compensate the descendants of individuals held in bondage, a worthy goal), but it is unlikely to mitigate the assault on the rights of African Americans that continue today. We would urge others to apply the same level of energy and drive given to the examination and re-examination of 19th century behavior to the problems of the 21st. Attacking concentrated poverty; substandard housing; lack of opportunities; addiction; gun violence; police brutality scandals, bias and corruption should be high on the agenda in Baltimore and elsewhere.


Among those taking such action in Maryland is Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who on Wednesday announced a $500,000 study to closely examine whether his own office has demonstrated a racial bias in prosecutorial decisions. That’s an extraordinary move, given that if bias is found by the independent research team, it will inevitably point a finger at Mr. McCarthy who is, after all, in charge of the office. That an elected official is willing to take this leap is not just a credit to him but should perhaps become a model for every state’s attorney in Maryland. Who knows what a thorough investigation might find in Baltimore, Harford and Carroll counties or in rural enclaves like Talbot County, where the prosecutor’s office is just steps away from the “Talbot Boys” memorial to Confederate soldiers.

But he is hardly alone in this fight. From the ongoing efforts to reform the Baltimore Police Department (as mandated by the federal consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city) to last month’s unveiling of a historic marker in Salisbury recalling several Wicomico County lynchings of nine decades past, there are signs of progress. One day it’s news that local nonprofits are finding creative ways to approach inequities — such as the recent announcement of $70,000 in “weave” grants by M & T Bank and the Aspen Institute to promote better connections among city neighbors. The next it may be what’s not happening in this state: Maryland’s Republican governor refuses to endorse Jim Crow model voter suppression like others in his party have advanced, from Florida to Texas to Arizona, for example.


Johns Hopkins University’s own efforts in this area deserve notice as well. JHU says it has made diversity and inclusion a top priority in recent years, and thanks to a $150 million gift to it and a handful of minority-serving universities from billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the school last month established the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative aimed at permanently increasing racial diversity among science, technology, engineering and math doctoral candidates with the first class of recipients due in the fall of 2022.

Not all Americans share these concerns for fixing inequities, however. This week’s belated recognition by President Joe Biden and others of the several hundred Black Americans killed by white rioters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a century ago caused some conservative commentators to go into full rejection mode, denying both shameful events in the nation’s history and any ongoing threat from white supremacists. It’s clear that hostility toward African Americans continues, sometimes openly, and frequently behind closed doors.

This only serves to underscore the need for the work that’s being done. Setting the record straight — and honestly documenting centuries old history matters. But perhaps more important is uncovering the injustices that continue today so that they may be addressed and do no further harm.

Every time a descendant of slavery is afforded proper rights and respect, with access to basic nutrition, health care, decent housing, a quality education, a good-paying job and the chance to live in a safe neighborhood where the sound of gunfire does not permeate the night and where others have those same opportunities, a blow is struck for racial justice, for decency and for the 14th Amendment’s long-promised equal protection under the law. The progress may be slow and painful, but it’s critical, nonetheless.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.