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Slavery is notable part of Johns Hopkins’ history | READER COMMENTARY

In this In this July 8, 2014 file photo, people walk on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus in Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University, whose researchers have been at the forefront of the global response to COVID-19, announced on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, that its founder owned slaves 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)
In this In this July 8, 2014 file photo, people walk on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus in Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University, whose researchers have been at the forefront of the global response to COVID-19, announced on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, that its founder owned slaves 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) (Patrick Semansky/AP)

It hardly surprised this Johns Hopkins University graduate (B.A. 1975) that the university’s and hospital’s founder and financial benefactor ever owned slaves (”Records prove Johns Hopkins University founder owned slaves, shattering belief he was a staunch abolitionist,” Dec. 9). To quote from the “Chronology” index in the back of “Johns Hopkins: Knowledge For The World … 1876-2001,” he was born in “1795 … at Whitehall, his family’s tobacco plantation in Anne Arundel County.” Need one say more?

Prior to the 1860s in the southern states, slavery was rampant in the agricultural sector. If the family had run a tobacco plantation in 1795 and thereafter without slaves, that would have surprised me. It took years of bloody Civil War, the murder of President Abraham Lincoln and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to officially end that unconscionable human tradition nationwide. More than 165 years later, we’re still wrestling with this legacy.

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To his partial credit, it appears Johns Hopkins eventually righted his moral compass. While census data reflects that he “owned” one slave in 1840 and four in 1850, I did not read that the researchers had found that he owned any in 1860. In a March 1873 letter, he directed the trustees-to-be of the hospital he was founding to treat “the indigent sick … without regard to sex, creed, or color.” He died that December. The elite university also funded by his estate was founded in 1876; the first African-American student was admitted in 1887. All in all, not a stellar track record, but, given the times, better than many.

I salute the present effort to confront history and debate what impact it should have on present arrangements. It may just be that, as with George Washington who bequeathed his own slaves to his widow in 1797, we recognize the deplorable history, weigh it against the good the person accomplished, and decide to maintain the widely recognized names, with annotations, and not name any more places after them. Or not. Time will tell.

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Louis Brendan Curran, Baltimore

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