The news that Johns Hopkins’ founder enslaved people isn’t shocking, but it is a call to action | COMMENTARY

In this In this July 8, 2014 file photo, people walk on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus in Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University announced on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, that its founder enslaved people during the 19th century, a revelation for the Baltimore-based school that had taken pride in the man purportedly being a staunch abolitionist. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

We don’t have the right to be “shocked” by the announcement that Johns Hopkins — the Quaker businessman who founded the Baltimore educational and medical institutions that bear his name — wasn’t an abolitionist, as history has held, but instead a slaveholder. The university revealed Wednesday that Hopkins had enslaved four men at his Clifton Park estate in the 1840s and 1850s, making him exactly like the others of his class and race in Baltimore.

Certainly, the university, of which I am a part, should apologize for its smug insistence for so many years that Johns Hopkins was above slavery. Ours was the same attitude one found when visiting Monticello in the 1990s and asking about Sally Hemmings: “Thomas Jefferson never had an unclean thought about his servants,” the docents would retort, with the confirmation of academic historians.


But, in the same way that I never believed the docents of Monticello, I, and many other Black Baltimoreans, had a hard time swallowing whole the unsullied, above-being-a-slaveholder image promulgated about the wealthy merchant and industrialist from the era of Frederick Douglass.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not praising him for slaveholding or excusing him for it, or even commenting on his apparent efforts to atone for his behavior in his will, which insisted on a training school and orphanage for the Black poor — three times.


But now that the myth that used to be a core part of city nostalgia — Hopkins’ pristine immaculateness — can no longer be upheld, we can do better than to feign disbelief. The fact that we ever believed the abolitionist story at all is more shocking than the truth.

We must use this news to deepen our resolve to untangle the dense web of structural racial injustice created by the vast slave system of global commercial exchange. We can no longer pretend that we somehow ride above the tenor of our own times and ignore our own culpability.

At Johns Hopkins, I founded The Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts to make connections between our campus and the historic Black communities of Baltimore. We do this, in part, through public jazz concerts — virtual this year, but next year, on the Saturday after Labor Day, we expect to return to a free afternoon of jazz in historic and beautiful Lafayette Square, featuring our Peabody all-stars and a Billie Holiday vocalist. We want citizens from all walks of life to be musically enlivened among diverse company in a part of the city that was so closely connected to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and to Jazz music.

We need more regular small-scale events bringing people from our Balkanized city into the distinctive and wonderful pockets of Black neighborhood life, which will build goodwill, decrease prejudice and help to grow businesses. We need more opportunities to enjoy each other’s company and to earn a reasonable wage with job security than we need police forces to guard the borders.

My associate director Kali-Ahset Amen, who is one of too few Black Ph.D.s working at the Homewood Campus, has been leading our efforts with several historic Black churches to preserve the archival record of Baltimore’s early Black communities. Sharp Street United Methodist, Union Baptist, St. John’s AME and St. James Episcopal at Lafayette Square (where I have gone to church most of my life) are all involved in our workshops to save and digitize their holdings and enhance their physical structures for archival preservation.

This work is not about raising the profile of Johns Hopkins, it is about redirecting resources and aligning passionate efforts among a group of city actors to properly care for a perishable record that, like the Johns Hopkins entry on the 1850 U.S. slave census itself, may one day reveal something crucial.

In my own scholarly journey I was pleased to find at the Lovely Lane Methodist Church archives last year a series of membership rolls proving the attendance at church classes in the late 1820s and early 1830s of African Americans in a position to educate the boy Frederick Bailey, later Frederick Douglas. Like the old pristine legend of Johns Hopkins, Douglass is written about in biographies as if he were completely isolated. I used the records to rewrite portions of Douglass’ early life in the city, signaling the importance of free Black people to his youthful quest for literacy.

Preserving such records helps us to reinterpret the past, to make it useful for the work before us now: lifting ourselves beyond historic misdeeds both known and unknown, whether they were done to our ancestors or by them. To ignore them, is to allow their legacy to continue to poison us today.


Lawrence Jackson grew up in Baltimore and is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History at Johns Hopkins University, where he also directs the Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts. His most recent book is “Chester B. Himes: A Biography.” He can be reached at