Podcast • Opinion
“Broken Doors,” Episode 1
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How one very old Census record spurred a reckoning at Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore said recently that records showed the school's namesake had enslaved at least four Black people before the Civil War. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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When she first saw the page, at home on her computer, Allison Seyler stopped. “It was a jarring moment,” she said, one that forced her to pause and think about what she was looking at.

It was an 1850 Census record, with ornate handwritten script. And it listed Johns Hopkins, the university and hospital’s founder, as the owner of four enslaved men.

“I sort of stopped, and took a second,” said Seyler, program manager of Hopkins Retrospective, a project begun in 2013 that has already researched difficult questions about the institution’s past. She was shocked by what she was seeing. “This is antithetical to the story I’ve been told about Johns Hopkins.”

She immediately thought: “'What else can I find?'”

That page forced a reckoning for the university, which had long upheld a story of its wealthy 19th-century benefactor and namesake as a Quaker abolitionist. At graveside memorials, held annually on Dec. 24 to mark the anniversary of his death, people gathered to honor and thank Johns Hopkins for the $7 million gift that established the university and hospital.

The memorial had already been canceled this year because of the novel coronavirus, a university spokeswoman said.

Johns Hopkins, benefactor of namesake hospital and university, was an enslaver

Now Hopkins is casting a more rigorous, critical eye on its own beginnings. The school is joining Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of more than 70 schools led by the University of Virginia, which has faced its own reconsideration of the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

For some, the revelation earlier this month hit like a thunderclap, upending how they thought about the school.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, history professor Martha S. Jones wrote that as the leader of the Hard Histories at Hopkins project — part of the team that uncovered the story over the past six months — she had long known that enslavement “was a tragically ordinary facet of early American life.

“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,” she wrote.

But her pride in the university is now mixed with bitterness, she wrote. “Our university was the gift of a man who traded in the liberty and dignity of other men and women.”

It was the discovery of the census record that spurred that research, and upending of the long-held narrative about Hopkins — a story based in part on a lack of personal and business papers for him, and a book written by an admiring descendant in 1929.

That came about when Seyler was auditing a seminar at Johns Hopkins taught by a mentor of hers, the retired Maryland state archivist, Ed Papenfuse.

Papenfuse, who is investigating how Hopkins made his fortune, told Seyler he thought he had found evidence that Hopkins had enslaved people in 1850, she said. He thought no one had looked closely at public records to learn more about Hopkins during his lifetime.

“My curiosity was obviously piqued,” Seyler said. And as it happened, she has a background in researching slavery in Maryland, so she was familiar with what public records might document that. Her instincts led her to the census.

And there it was: In a list of enslavers, she saw the name Johns Hopkins, and the ages of four men.

She thought: “This is a really critical record — this is a thing I’m not sure has been brought to light.”

When she told Papenfuse, he confirmed that it was what he had seen as well, she said. They began talking about what it meant.

Seyler said she immediately wondered what other records they could find — and how to share the information with the public.

Seyler works with the president’s office, so she told people there about what she had seen, and they brought in Jones to lead the effort to learn more. One first step was to figure out whether this Hopkins was the same man who had bequeathed the gift.

All the record really tells people is that whoever answered the door in 1850 told the census-taker that four men were enslaved there, Seyler said.

The documents that remain, Jones wrote in a report about their initial findings, “are shard-like in quality,” just traces of Hopkins, his life and the people around him.

Researchers are at the beginning of what is expected to be a long effort, Jones wrote, including attempts to learn about the lives of the enslaved people in the Hopkins household, their lives after their liberation, and his views on abolition.

Papenfuse praised Jones’s “extraordinary, pioneering” scholarship on this matter. But he also expressed some doubt about what they know for certain thus far. “My personal opinion, based on the records I’ve seen so far, is the evidence is simply not sufficient to make an argument that he was a slave owner,” he said. The lack of records and the complexity of the institution of slavery, he said, means “you need to be very careful about how you interpret what people are doing and how they are doing it.”

In the 1860 Census, there are no enslaved people listed with Hopkins’s name.

In 1873 when Hopkins died, he had three people working for him whose ages aligned with three of the enslaved people listed in 1850, Papenfuse said. And in his will, for “those African Americans who had worked for him and worked with him for a very long period of time he provided exceptional bequests,” he said — a house and the equivalent of nearly $100,000 for a coachman, and the equivalent of nearly $60,000 to a housekeeper.

Papenfuse said they must continue the research, and he thinks it is important that they look at assessment records in Baltimore to see how Hopkins was taxed, because enslaved people would have been part of that equation.

“Our job is to start piecing these shards of information together,” Seyler said. She’s excited about the ongoing work with Jones to tell a more complete and complex history, “rather than accepting the narrative.”

Host Nicole Ellis investigates the Lost Cause propaganda campaign, the women most influential to its success, and museums that are setting the record straight. (Video: Nicole Ellis)