Long Heralded as an Abolitionist, Johns Hopkins Enslaved People, Records Show

The Baltimore university that bears his name announced new research that “shattered” perceptions of the Quaker entrepreneur

A composite image of Hopkins, center, wearing a fancy suit and looking seriously off to the side; behind him, a cutout of the slave schedule which reads "slave households in ... the county of Baltimore..." and lower right, Hopkin's name (circle added)
Johns Hopkins, founder of the Baltimore university that bears his name, enslaved at least four unnamed men in 1850. Pictured behind Hopkins is the 1850 "slave schedule" with his name (#33, circled in blue) and the enslaved individuals' ages. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons and National Archives and Record Administration

For decades, Johns Hopkins University painted a rosy portrait of its founder as an admirable leader whose Quaker beliefs informed his “fervent” abolitionist philosophy.

But new research shows that the American entrepreneur enslaved at least one person in his household in 1840, and at least four unnamed men—aged 50, 45, 25 and 18—as late as 1850.

Hopkins may have never held abolitionist views either. He had complex financial ties to the institution of slavery, including sometimes acquiring enslaved people to settle business debts, and no existing records suggest he or his father, Samuel, ever freed the enslaved people on their properties.

These findings upend a long-held—but dubiously sourced—vision of the Baltimore university’s founder as a progressive abolitionist ahead of his time, reports Jennifer Schuessler for the New York Times. University president Ronald J. Daniels and other leaders announced the news in a Wednesday letter to the Hopkins community.

“[T]he fact that Mr. Hopkins had, at any time in his life, a direct connection to slavery—a crime against humanity that tragically persisted in the state of Maryland until 1864—is a difficult revelation for us, as we know it will be for our community, at home and abroad, and most especially our Black faculty, students, staff, and alumni,” the administrators wrote. “It calls to mind not only the darkest chapters in the history of our country and our city but also the complex history of our institutions since then, and the legacies of racism and inequity we are working together to confront.”

All community members are invited to participate in a virtual town hall addressing the research tomorrow at 11 a.m., the university notes in a statement.

This pivotal information about Hopkins’ life came to light thanks to retired Maryland State Archivist Ed Papenfuse, who contacted the university to share a hunch about its founder, reports Jonathan M. Pitts for the Baltimore Sun. In May, Allison Seyler, a historian and program manager for the ongoing Hopkins Retrospective project, located a digitized 1850 census record confirming Papenfuse’s theory.

Daniels asked Martha S. Jones, a historian of black American history at Hopkins, to lead research into the topic. On Wednesday, Jones debuted her initial report alongside Hard Histories at Hopkins, a forum for linking newfound information about Hopkins’ past to discussions about present-day issues.

Reexamining the Life of Johns Hopkins, Our University's Founder

As Jones writes in a Washington Post opinion article on the findings, the fact that a man as affluent as Hopkins directly benefited from slavery isn’t inherently surprising.

“Hopkins, the descendant of Maryland planters, largely derived his wealth from real estate, railroads, banking—and by being party to slavery’s crime against humanity,” she explains. “… Centuries ago, wealthy men such as Hopkins amassed their fortunes through endeavors only two or three degrees removed from the exploitation of people treated as property. Before the Civil War, Americans held more wealth in enslaved people than they did in railroads, banks and factories combined.”

Jones adds, “It turns out that Hopkins engaged in all of these endeavors.”

Born in 1795, Hopkins grew up on his family’s Anne Arundel tobacco plantation but left at a young age to make his fortune in Baltimore. He died in 1873 at age 78, bequeathing $7 million—today, about $150 million—to create the nation’s first research university.

The institution that bears Hopkins’ name has long told a story about how its founder’s father, Samuel, freed the family’s enslaved people sometime during his son’s childhood. As it turns out, no evidence that this event occurred exists.

Instead, the 1850 “slave schedule” document discovered by Seyler lists “Johns Hopkins” as number 33 on a list of slaveholders. His name appears alongside sparse identifying information: the ages of four men that he enslaved.

Additional research turned up an 1840 census record that lists one person as enslaved in Hopkin’s household and documents from the 1830s that show Hopkins sometimes purchased enslaved individuals in order to settle debts. (The 1860 census does not list enslaved people, per the university statement.)

None of the enslaved men’s names were listed on these reports—a fact that underscores the inhumanity of the entire institution of slavery, Jones tells the Times.

“We shouldn’t forget that,” she says. “That’s where the tragedy is. That’s why we should be shattered.”

Portrait of Johns Hopkins
New research shows that Hopkins enslaved at least one person in his household in 1840, and at least four unnamed men—aged 50, 45, 25 and 18—as late as 1850. Johns Hopkins University

Jones also researched how myths about Hopkins began to circulate. One key factor was a lack of evidence: Hopkins had no children, and he may have destroyed most of his personal documents toward the end of his life (“not an uncommon practice,” according to the Sun). Alternatively, the papers may have been lost in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.

This lack of a paper trail enabled historical revisionism by Hopkins’ grandniece, Helen Hopkins Thom, who penned Johns Hopkins: A Silhouette—a wholly romanticized account of her relative’s life—in 1929.

“Helen Hopkins Thom was not a historian,” Jones tells the Sun. “Her version of the family and of Johns Hopkins himself caught on and was relied upon and repeated and promoted, even by the university. We did not subject it to scholarly or scientific scrutiny until now.”

Later 20th-century articles about Hopkins’ life built on these questionable stories and exaggerated his so-called abolitionist beliefs to a striking degree. In fact, Jones has not located any evidence of Hopkins ever promoting abolition.

In her report, Jones outlines a number of further avenues for research. Future studies, for instance, will attempt to gather as much information as possible about the lives of the enslaved individuals who lived in Hopkins’ house, as well as their lives following liberation.

At the time of his death, Hopkins also bequeathed funds for a major hospital. He stipulated in his will that it should serve all people regardless of race—a bold request, and one typically hailed as a sign that Hopkins was ahead of his time.

In her report, however, Jones argues that this bequest should also be understood in its full context: Hopkins envisioned founding a segregated hospital. Further research projects will probe to what extent Hopkins’ views on segregation and anti-Black racism informed his understanding of the world, medicine and philanthropy, she writes.

In the open letter, Daniels notes that the university is “fully committed to continuing this research wherever it may lead.”

Speaking with the Times, he adds, “You want your origin story to be more than mythical. For an origin story to be foundational and durable, it also has to be true.”

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