This winter, Johns Hopkins University leaders made a stunning announcement, one that upended generations of veneration of the school’s founder and namesake: The wealthy Quaker long known as an abolitionist had, school officials announced, enslaved people.
But a group of other researchers is questioning the university’s findings, calling them inaccurate and misleading. Like other wealthy businessmen of his time, Hopkins surely benefited indirectly from the slave trade, the researchers wrote in a paper published online, and cannot be absolved of complicity. But they say the school went too far in drawing conclusions and have asked the university to strike language from its website that states that Hopkins enslaved people.
The researchers argued that Hopkins’s parents and grandparents freed the family’s enslaved workers before 1800, in keeping with their Quaker faith. They wrote that Hopkins himself was an emancipationist and that the documents available — including tax records — don’t support the school’s claim that he enslaved people.
A couple of the university’s December statements about Hopkins are sweeping conclusions that went far beyond the evidence, said Sydney Van Morgan, International Studies program director at Johns Hopkins and a political scientist who was one of the co-authors of the new report.
The university’s president, Ronald J. Daniels, responded to the authors with an email this spring telling them, “As you would expect, we consulted a number of colleagues and historians before sharing publicly the discovery of the census documents indicating slave ownership by Mr. Hopkins, and we took pains to communicate about those findings in a manner that was both forthcoming and quite careful — fully acknowledging the documented findings of our lead historian in the matter, Dr. Martha Jones, while also embracing the potential for new discoveries, countervailing interpretations, and rigorous debate.”
Andrew A. Green, a spokesman for the university, said the school is planning a symposium on new discoveries about Hopkins this fall.
Whether Hopkins was the official owner of enslaved people or held them in his home as laborers or in some other capacity, Green wrote, “what is clear is that Johns Hopkins’ relationship to slavery is much different than the story the university has been telling for a century, and that’s why we are undertaking this inquiry.”
Universities across the country have, in recent years, scrutinized their past and asked difficult questions about their own histories, the lives of their founders, and how those intersected with the grim realities of the slave trade. At Georgetown University, for example, school leaders have apologized for the 1838 sale of 272 people enslaved on Maryland plantations, which paid school debts, and have taken steps to help descendants of those enslaved people.
Those university inquiries into the past have gained even more intensity amid the racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd.
But the effort at Johns Hopkins prompted an unusual pushback, an effort by scholars to question whether school officials moved too quickly to, as one professor put it, throw Hopkins under the bus.
Some schools have faced complaints from graduates or administrators unwilling to let go of beloved founding myths. Kirt von Daacke, a history professor and assistant dean at the University of Virginia, which founded the growing international consortium Universities Studying Slavery, said that the inquiry underway is vitally important, as it is at other institutions, but this academic questioning of the Hopkins evidence is unusual. “I’ve never seen a case,” he said, “where there’s a group of scholars arguing with the findings.”
Some scholars said after reading the paper that the initial evidence presented by the university is unconvincing, especially given the complexities of mid-19th-century Baltimore, and the lack of conclusive original documents.
“Hopkins for a very long time, over a century, has had a well-deserved reputation for unflinching pursuit of truth,” said Michael Johnson, an emeritus professor of history at the university. “As I saw this, the university flinched. There was a kind of rush to judgment on what seemed to me to be flimsy and unvetted evidence that just was not persuasive.”
Some scholars argued that the question of whether Hopkins enslaved people misses the point.
More research is needed on how the university was shaped by money earned through the slave trade, they suggest, on the lives of Black people, and other larger questions of race and equity over the years.
Seth Rockman, associate professor of history at Brown University, wrote in an email that he would prefer to see historians’ energies devoted to finding out more about the millions of Black Americans who lived under slavery, and the racism that structured their eventual freedom. “This is a more politically urgent undertaking than seeking out ‘exculpatory’ evidence to absolve a single white family,” he wrote, “for its involvement in that system of marginalization and exclusion.”
The unraveling of the long-held narrative about Hopkins — a legacy shaped early on by a laudatory book written by a descendant, and limited by the lack of personal and business papers — came with the revelation of 19th-century census documents. Those listed Hopkins as owner in one column, and noted enslaved people in another column: one in 1840, four in 1850.
That evidence looked obvious, unarguable, to some.
But the four authors of “Johns Hopkins and Slavery” — Van Morgan; Stan Becker, a demographer and emeritus professor at the university; Samuel B. Hopkins, a retired lawyer who is the great-great-great-grandson of Hopkins’s father, Samuel Hopkins; and Edward C. Papenfuse, a historian and former Maryland state archivist — said it was not enough to support the university’s claim. Papenfuse had seen the census records, and he mentioned them in a seminar he taught last year.
Hopkins did not own the enslaved person who was listed as living in his household on the 1840 Census, they argued, and it is highly unlikely that he owned the four enslaved men working at his county estate during the summer of 1850.
It’s difficult to prove a negative. But they cited details about his Quaker community at the time, and documents including an 1873 newspaper article after Hopkins’s death that described a large meeting of Black people celebrating his will leaving millions of dollars to found a hospital, orphanage and university, all open to people regardless of race. The researchers noted that no sales records, deeds or wills provide direct ownership of enslaved people by Hopkins and that tax records they examined did not list taxes paid on enslaved people.
There is no evidence of any enslaved person owned by Hopkins, they argued, other than James Jones, a man he brought to Baltimore from a Virginia plantation, freed, and employed for many years.
Some scholars who read the paper agreed with the authors that the evidence that Hopkins enslaved people is inconclusive, because of conditions in Baltimore at the time, the limitations of census data, or other reasons. “Maryland is a very complicated state with regard to slavery,” Johnson said, with many Black people in transition to freedom. The city had a large free Black population in the mid-1800s — some Black people who were enslaved for a set number of years, and some who lived or worked away from the homes of people who legally owned them.
Census enumerators at the time were instructed to list the owner of the property and determine how many enslaved people were at that property on that day, according to Matthew Crenson, an emeritus professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, whose research has included issues of slavery and race in Baltimore. For a large property with many residents, the connections were not always simple.
“The evidence is pretty strong that Johns Hopkins was an abolitionist,” Crenson said, and the possibility exists that he owned enslaved people for the possibility of manumitting them. One can’t conclude that Hopkins definitely did not enslave people, he said. “The evidence, however, seems to go in the other direction.”
Philip Morgan, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins, said it appeared the university had jumped the gun a bit. “Certainly some of the hagiography written about Hopkins in earlier years is pretty galling,” Morgan said. “I wouldn’t make any excuses for that kind of crap. But you don’t want to go the other way. You want to be truthful to this person.”
Jones, writing in an email from France, said the research is ongoing and will take some time. Additional findings will be released this summer, she said. “I remain of the view that Mr. Hopkins held enslaved people in his household at least in 1840 and 1850 as the census slave schedules reported,” she wrote. “I have not seen evidence to the contrary.”
Eric Foner, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University, said the authors of the paper had clearly done a lot of research, but that he didn’t find their conclusions convincing. “They dance around what most historians would consider a pretty important document, the Census.”
As to the lack of tax records, Foner said the absence of something is not a proof. There should be further research, he said, “and I assume there will be.”
Foner said a debate over whether Hopkins owned enslaved people isn’t the right one, anyway.
William G. Thomas III, a history professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who wrote a book about families in Maryland suing for freedom, said the weight of evidence he had seen about the Hopkins family was clearly that they were emancipationists. The school’s announcement in December “is really aimed at demythologizing its history, and this is healthy and much needed,” he wrote in an email. “The idea that the university was untainted by slavery is a fallacy, and it obscures the complicated, nuanced history of slavery in the United States.”
What’s really important to recognize, he wrote, “is the long history of freedom-making by Black families in Maryland.” The Hopkins family tried to extricate themselves from slaveholding, he wrote, but it was Black families who challenged slavery directly. “They are at the center of the story of American history in a way we have not fully acknowledged.”
A previous version of this article gave an incorrect title for Michael Johnson. He is an emeritus professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. The article has been corrected.
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