Johns Hopkins University Reveals Founder, Once Thought to Be an Abolitionist, Enslaved People

Johns Hopkins, the man who founded the country’s first research university and was long thought to be a “staunch abolitionist,” actually enslaved people — a finding that complicates his legacy as a supporter of Baltimore’s Black community, the school has revealed.

Johns Hopkins University announced the findings in an open letter on Wednesday, and said they came from researchers Martha S. Jones and Allison Seyler as part of a years-long project.

“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 — both his participation in slaveholding and his extraordinary and specific gifts to the people of Baltimore, particularly those gifts that supported Black Baltimoreans at a time when other white leaders of similar means did not,” the letter read.

For the last 100 years, the university system believed Hopkins to be “an early and staunch abolitionist,” and that his Quaker father had freed the family’s enslaved people in 1807.

But according to government census records, Hopkins enslaved one person in 1840 and four in 1850. The records showed that by the time the 1860 census was released, Hopkins’ household did not list any enslaved people. Slavery was abolished in Maryland in 1864.

The names of the enslaved people are not known, nor is the nature of their relationship with the man who founded Johns Hopkins University in 1876, and its hospital 13 years later.

The letter said that Hopkins’ personal papers were either destroyed before his death or lost afterwards.

The letter said the findings “complicate the understanding” of who Hopkins was as a person, as his legacy includes the fact he directed his hospital to accept patients regardless of sex, age or race, and that he had an orphanage created in Baltimore specifically for Black children.

“The 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 letter said. “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 letter said that the longstanding belief that Hopkins was an abolitionist comes from a 1929 book written by his grandniece Helen Thom that claimed Hopkins’ parents freed all of the enslaved people on their Maryland plantation in 1807. The current research, however, found no evidence to substantiate that claim, save for an obituary that described him as having antislavery political views.

The school said the findings are “early and provisional,” and that researchers will continue searching for the truth.

Jones, a history professor at the school, said in an op-ed published in the Washington Post that the findings have dampened her sense of school pride, but that she will continue her research.

“Going forward, my work will involve investigating our founder’s relationship to slaveholding and, as much as possible, understanding the lives of those he held enslaved,” she wrote. “Solemnity is tempering my school spirit. It is time to retire my sweatshirt, however comfortable it was. It is also time to retire old myths about Johns Hopkins and the sense of ease they have given our university community. Only with that can our reckoning begin.”

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