We now know that the story of the founder of Johns Hopkins University and hospital as abolitionist and staunch opponent of slavery was nothing more than a fairy tale, and not historical fact. A team of researchers led by Johns Hopkins professor Martha S. Jones debunked that narrative, which has existed for generations, with U.S. Census documents that show the business owner led a Baltimore household that included at least five enslaved men, one in 1840 and four in 1850, and maybe more before that. Not shocking given the time period. The bigger surprise, perhaps, is that nobody questioned the widely accepted story in the first place, given most wealthy families of that era achieved their riches with free labor.
How that false narrative came to be is reflective of a longtime problem that has existed in America about who has been allowed to shape and tell the country’s history, which is often done in a way that attempts to downplay atrocities like slavery. It’s the reason Christopher Columbus was long billed as the founder of a country where Indigenous people already lived. Why some plantation tours leave out a slavery history or claim the former owners “treated their slaves well.” Why enslaved women impregnated by their owners are depicted as mistresses rather than rape victims. Why Confederate monuments give the impression the South won the Civil War. And why the life of Martin Luther King Jr. is relegated to his “I Have a Dream” speech and not his more radical activism.
And then there was Johns Hopkins, a private man whose personal papers were destroyed, leaving the telling of his history to a great niece, Helen Hopkins Thom, who took creative liberties in weaving together various embellishments that became an accepted history of her uncle in her 1929 work “Johns Hopkins: A Silhouette.” (Perhaps the word silhouette should have clued us in that the accounting was more surface than substance.)
Or perhaps five slaves who weren’t toiling on a plantation didn’t count. Whatever the truth, it was clear that Thom, the granddaughter of Hopkins’ older brother, Joseph, lacked objectivity, Ms. Jones told The Sun, and parts of her narrative were able to be disproved. Being a research institution, it’s disappointing and an embarrassment, that nobody at Hopkins ever delved more into its founder’s history before now. Ms. Jones and her team were able to assemble a different account of Hopkins’ life in just seven months, with information that took time, but didn’t seem difficult to uncover. Ed Papenfuse, the former state archivist, told Allison Seyler, the program manager of Hopkins Retrospective, that he might have found evidence of slave ownership. Ms. Seyler tracked down the census details through digitized church records and went to university leadership, who brought Ms. Jones on board to verify it all.
The good thing is that Hopkins is ready to correct the record and officials have said this is just beginning of a period of self-scrutiny. Let’s just hope they follow through in meaningful ways. They can start by finding out more about the enslaved men; all that is known now is their ages: 50, 45, 25 and 18. Hopkins must find their names and then their descendants, and reach out to them so that they are not a faceless invisible part of Hopkins history. Hopkins is going to have to dig up all of its skeletons if it is every going to truly mend relations with neighboring communities that have so much distrust for the institution.
What can the community believe as truth if the foundation of its founding is a lie? False narratives like this only feed the skepticism like that which was expressed when Hopkins tried to bring a private police force to campus — a distrust that has existed for decades. They put those plans on the back burner for now. Some had little faith the university’s true motive was safety and worried African Americans, both on campus and in the community, might instead become targets.
Hopkins and other institutions are learning the hard way that sanitized narratives will no longer be tolerated. Some of the Baltimore area’s private schools have come under scrutiny in recent months, including the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, which has been under pressure to change its name because its founder, a wealthy slave owner in the 1800s, used his fortune to create schools. Others have recently demanded that Loyola Blakefield High School change its name based on alumni claims that the Blake family donated to the school on the condition it would not accept Black students. School leaders found no evidence of this, though they have acknowledged the existence of racist attitudes and said they are evaluating the school’s culture, policies and inequities.
America needs to start telling all of its history and not just the narratives it wants to present to the world. African Americans are tired of being left out, and they have every right to feel that way.
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.