When we first learned last year that our founder, Johns Hopkins, was listed in the 1850 census, in what was known as a “slave schedule,” as owning enslaved people, we were crestfallen. The long-standing narrative of Hopkins’ life at the institutions named for him described him as a staunch abolitionist whose family severed its ties to slavery in the early 19th century. Now it appeared that a central element of this long-standing account was ill-founded.
We immediately understood the significance of this census document, as well as its limitations. We saw clearly the need for deeper interrogation and expert interpretation of our history — an undertaking made even more difficult by the fact that so few of Hopkins’ own papers have survived.
In confronting the question of how to pursue this painstaking research, we knew we had an obligation to get the basic facts right about our namesake and a need to inform the public in an open and transparent manner.
We struck a careful balance by asking Martha Jones, one of the nation’s foremost scholars of slavery in the United States and in Maryland, to investigate and interpret the findings. After six months of intensive work by Professor Jones and others, we determined that it was appropriate to communicate the documentary evidence and preliminary findings and to launch publicly the longer-term process of discovery and reckoning that is now underway and will continue in earnest for some time to come.
Our announcement was made with the clear recognition that neither the man nor the historical context lend themselves to quick conclusions nor easy headlines. Hopkins was a complex and even contradictory person, whose story holds multiple truths within it. These truths include both ties to slavery and a philanthropic vision that changed the face of higher education and medical care in America and expressly supported people of all races in Baltimore.
It is our challenge and responsibility to face these hard truths in a way that embraces a multifaceted narrative rather than repeating unquestioned myths.
In the six months of investigation prior to public disclosure, Professor Jones and her colleagues unearthed further evidence that challenged long-held understandings of Hopkins and his family. The story of a large-scale manumission of enslaved persons by the Hopkins family in 1807 was not supported by the state’s manumission records, and it was contradicted by new evidence of enslaved people being passed down from one generation of the Hopkins family to the next.
Also significant were records showing the Hopkins family’s reliance upon the indentured labor of Black children and Hopkins’ willingness to accept enslaved people as collateral in a business transaction in the 1830s. And while Hopkins was said to have purchased an enslaved boy in Virginia and later freed him, so far the details of that account have not been substantiated.
Even as debate continues about whether Hopkins held formal legal possession of enslaved persons, there is clear evidence that he was more engaged in the institution of slavery than previously understood. However enslaved people came into his household, and whatever his precise relationship to them, Hopkins is now documented to have had a direct connection to slavery — a crime against humanity that tragically persisted in the state of Maryland until 1864.
Nonetheless, we were careful in our announcement last December to frame our findings as preliminary and to acknowledge that many questions do not — and may never — have full answers. We also were resolute that the information we unearthed did not, in our view, constitute grounds to change the name of the university or the hospital, but they did demand a reconsideration of Hopkins’ life story and how our institutions tell it.
We will continue to meet this demand through the ongoing work of historians and researchers at our institution and beyond who wish to delve deeply into the historical record and draw their own conclusions. And we will share new findings along the way, including at a public symposium planned for this fall.
Through this, we make manifest our enduring commitment to the rigorous research and free exchange of ideas that lie at the core of our university — a privilege bequeathed to us by the visionary generosity of a man who seems to have been both of, and beyond, his times.
Ronald J. Daniels (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Johns Hopkins University.