Johns Hopkins, Alleged Abolitionist Namesake of Hospital and University, Was a Slave Owner

As universities across the nation have been reckoning with their past over recent years, taking down statues and renaming halls that bore the names of former slave owners, one institution remained untouched: Johns Hopkins. The story, long repeated about the namesake of the Maryland hospital and university, was that his family had owned slaves before his father freed them in 1807. Legend has it, Hopkins grew up to be a Quaker and outspoken abolitionist. But recent research from Martha S. Jones, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University’s SNF Agora Institute has suggested most of this supposed history may not actually be true.

Launched as part of the university’s “Hard Histories” project in fall 2020, the records in Jones’ report titled, “Johns Hopkins and Slaveholding,” attributed at least four men enslaved to Hopkins. Researchers working on the project also found no evidence that his father, Samuel Hopkins, had actually freed any slaves. The report of these findings is preliminary but brings into question what many thought had been well established about Hopkins’ story.

Because Hopkins was a successful businessman who left $7 million to the nation’s first research university and hospital, vowing it should serve Baltimore’s poor “without regard to sex, age or color,” he has been lauded as a philanthropic icon. However, while digging into his past, Jones said she found no accounts of Johns Hopkins’ personal beliefs about slavery.

Jones conducted the research with the help of Allison Seyler, the program manager of an existing Hopkins history project at the university’s library. The partnership allowed the pair to pore over volumes of legal, census and other historic records.

Their findings so far include the following:

  • Johns Hopkins, the elder grandfather of Johns Hopkins, freed nine adult slaves as many had originally thought. However, he also transformed 32 enslaved young adults and children into term slaves, meaning they would serve him as slaves until they reached their 20s. Research also shows he left 14 enslaved people to his children in his will and bequeathed 14 others to be distributed among his heirs.
  • The researchers have found no evidence that Samuel Hopkins freed any slaves. However, at his death in 1814, his estate didn’t report any enslaved people among his property. Researchers also found no account of what happened to the enslaved person Samuel’s father willed to him. Evidence also shows that Samuel indentured two young boys, Thomas, 7, and Jerimiah, 10, to serve him until they were 21 in exchange for food and shelter but no wages.
  • In 1850, a member of Johns Hopkins’s household reported he owned four slaves, aged 50, 45, 25 and 18, but the researchers are still looking for more information about who these individuals were. They also found no evidence of Hopkins freeing any slaves.
  • Hopkins’s brother, Samuel also held two enslaved people in his household in 1850 and one in 1860.

The report notes that both Jones and Seyler are eager to learn more about the people who were enslaved in order to tell their stories. Census data collectors did not note the names of enslaved individuals, which Jones told The New York Times was the most difficult fact to come to terms with.

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

The pair also set out to learn more about Hopkins’s personal views about racism and segregation. Jones said it was important for Black Baltimoreans to be centered as the reason for continuing this research.

“This is the community writ large that lives with the legacies of slavery, racism and inequality,” she told The Times.

In a Dec. 9 letter to the Johns Hopkins University community, university President Ronald J. Daniels summarized the findings and promised accountability, calling slavery “a crime against humanity that tragically persisted in the state of Maryland until 1864.”

“We are not alone in undertaking the difficult but essential work of reckoning with a complex history and the legacy of racial injustice,” Daniels wrote. “This is a solemn responsibility and an important opportunity not only to seek truth but also to build a better, more just and more equitable future for our institution and all we serve.”


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