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Johns Hopkins, Long Believed An Abolitionist, Actually Owned Slaves, University Says

The founder of Johns Hopkins University was discovered to be a slaveowner in contradiction to the long-held narrative that the philanthropist was an abolitionist.
The founder of Johns Hopkins University was discovered to be a slaveowner in contradiction to the long-held narrative that the philanthropist was an abolitionist.

Historians for Johns Hopkins University discovered that the founder of the Baltimore-based school owned slaves, contrary to the long-held belief that the wealthy philanthropist was a staunch abolitionist.

Researchers Martha S. Jones and Allison Seyler made the discovery after delving into previously undiscovered government census records as part of a university-led project on the school's history.

The findings "complicate the understanding" the Johns Hopkins community has toward its founder, wrote University President Ronald J. Daniels and other school officials in an open letter Wednesday.

"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," the officials wrote.

The census records show Hopkins owned slaves as late as 1850. This is contrary to a long-held narrative that Hopkins' father, motivated by his Quaker faith, freed all slaves on the family plantation by 1807, when Hopkins himself was only a boy.

Hopkins, who was born in 1795, was the owner of one slave listed in his household in 1840 and four slaves listed in 1850, according to the newly discovered census information. By the 1860 census, no slaves were listed as being in his household. Maryland abolished slavery in 1864.

When he died in 1873 at age 78, Hopkins, an entrepreneur and investor, left a$7 million bequest — at the time, the largest in U.S. history — that was used to open a hospital, orphanage and the university. The money is nearly 150 million in current dollars.

Among other things, the premier institution plays a crucial role in tracking the global COVID-19 infection and death rates during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Officials said the school plans to continue with its Hopkins Retrospective project to find more information about the school's history and to glean a fuller picture of the founder they thought they knew.

Hopkins history

Hopkins' personal papers and other records were either destroyed or lost long ago, the school said Wednesday. Instead, the university has until now primarily used Hopkins' will, correspondence with trustees, and a short book written by the benefactor's grandniece, as historical evidence.

The book, written by Helen Thom and published by the school's press in 1929, says her great uncle was a "strong abolitionist." The book reiterates the tale that Hopkins' parents freed all enslaved people on their Anne Arundel plantation south of Baltimore by 1807. This act, Thom wrote, put significant financial strain on the family. Subsequently, at age 17, Johns was forced to leave the plantation to find work in Baltimore.

However, the researchers Jones and Seyler found nothing to substantiate that claim. They did find evidence of a partial freeing of slaves in 1778 by Johns Hopkins' grandfather, but also uncovered continued slaveholding and transactions involving enslaved people going on decades later.

Jones and Seyler also looked more closely at an 1838 letter from the Hopkins Brothers firm, a business in which Johns Hopkins was a principal owner. The letter details the acceptance of a slave as collateral for a debt.

Even so, they located an additional obituary detailing Hopkins as holding "antislavery political views" and as purchasing a slave for the purpose of later freeing him.

Questions remain over the slaves who were listed on the census forms. There is no other information about their circumstances or the nature of their relationship with Johns Hopkins.

The university officials said, "Like so many others who have made meaningful contributions to our country's history, Mr. Hopkins is a complex and contradictory person whose story holds within it multiple truths."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 11, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to a letter from the Hopkins Brothers firm as dating from 1863. The correct date of the letter is 1838.