Johns Hopkins, the 19th-century businessman who bequeathed a fortune to found the hospital and university in Baltimore that bear his name, and who on scanty evidence was long heralded as an abolitionist, enslaved at least four Black people before the Civil War, school officials disclosed Wednesday.

Newly unearthed census records show Hopkins, who amassed wealth as a merchant and railroad investor, held one person as property in 1840 and four people in 1850, according to Johns Hopkins University officials. Census records listed no enslaved people in the Hopkins household as of 1860.

Maryland, where Hopkins lived, was a state that permitted slavery.

The revelation, the latest of several in recent years showing how deeply the roots of American higher education were entwined with slavery, cast a new and harsh historical light on the philanthropist Hopkins and the origin story behind an institution considered the nation’s first research university.

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When Hopkins died in 1873, he left $7 million in his will to establish a hospital, training colleges, an orphanage and a university. At the time, it was said to be the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history. It gave rise to a renowned university that perennially receives more federal research funding than any other.

Johns Hopkins University still celebrates the man and his gift. Ceremonies are held every Christmas Eve at the Hopkins gravesite in Baltimore to mark the anniversary of his death. On a prominent webpage labeled “History & Mission,” the university until Wednesday described Hopkins as “an entrepreneur and abolitionist with Quaker roots who believed in improving public health and education in Baltimore and beyond.”

That page, which previously had no references to slavery, was updated Wednesday afternoon to note “strong evidence that Johns Hopkins held enslaved people in his home until at least the mid-1800s.”

Now the history of Hopkins, the man and the institution, has a new arc.

“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,” three top Hopkins leaders wrote in a joint message released Wednesday afternoon.

“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 three leaders were Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University; Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and chief executive of Johns Hopkins Medicine; and Kevin W. Sowers, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System.

The university has been exploring its institutional history since 2013 in a project dubbed the Hopkins Retrospective. In connection with that effort, the three leaders wrote, questions about the philanthropist’s possible ties to slavery surfaced in late spring, when researchers found the census records implicating Hopkins as an enslaver.

Daniels indicated that he is not in favor of renaming the 27,000-student university he has led since 2009. “As I see it, our obligation in this difficult moment is to change our narrative, not our name,” he told The Washington Post.

Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at Hopkins, said the revelation shatters myths about the philanthropist and will rock the university community at a time when Hopkins researchers have been prominent voices for public health and medical science in the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

“This year, so many of us at Johns Hopkins have taken pride in being affiliated with our colleagues in medicine and public health who have brilliantly confronted the coronavirus pandemic,” Jones wrote in an opinion piece for The Post. “That pride, for me, now mixes with bitterness. Our university was the gift of a man who traded in the liberty and dignity of other men and women.”

Jones said the four people enslaved in 1850 were men ages 18 to 50. She plans to lead an effort, called Hard Histories at Hopkins, to uncover their stories and understand connections from that time to the future of the university.

“This is the beginning of a long and probing inquiry on our part into the consequences of slavery, yes, but racism, in particular, and how that has shaped our institution across time,” Jones said. “Among the first obligations is to finish the research that we have begun.”

Jones said there’s little evidence Hopkins even subscribed to abolitionist views.

“He may have been a critic of slavery,” Jones said. “My initial observation is that more than one thing can be true at the same time, and was true for many individuals in the early United States.”

For a university that prides itself on its commitment to deep research, with a motto of “The truth will set you free,” the disclosures marked a stunning admission of generations of institutional ignorance about crucial facts in the life of Hopkins.

It also revealed a lack of skepticism about historical sources, particularly a short book about Hopkins written by his grandniece Helen Thom (and published by the university’s own press in 1929), that had led the university to portray the philanthropist as an abolitionist.

Daniels acknowledged that these lapses are painful and hard to explain. “How did we embrace this so readily?” he said. He pledged full transparency as the university continues to pursue questions about its history, and he pledged to redouble efforts Hopkins has made in recent years to combat racism and deepen engagement with the Baltimore community.

The university has four campuses in Baltimore, one in Washington and one in Montgomery County, Md. It also runs other facilities in the Baltimore-Washington region, including the Applied Physics Laboratory, as well as outposts in Italy and China.

As a powerful force in Baltimore, Hopkins for many years has struggled to overcome the perception that it is an aloof neighbor.

Lawrence Brown, an author who has studied segregation in Baltimore, said Black people in the city have long referred to Hopkins as “the plantation.” A litany of abuses, he said, include urban renewal efforts that displaced thousands of Black families and the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black patient at the Hopkins hospital in 1951 whose cancer cells were used without her consent for medical research.

“Those things weren’t necessarily missteps or happenstance,” Brown said. “The founder being a slaveowner says this was at the root.”

Alfred Lacks Carter, Lacks’s grandson, said in a statement the announcement “reflects the very heart of the matter of historical injustices, medical racism, and the need for transparency.”

“Clinical trial diversity cannot be addressed without first acknowledging and having honest conversations about the role institutions have played in systemic racism,” Carter said.

In their statement Wednesday, Hopkins leaders noted that “Mr. Hopkins specifically directed that the hospital extend its care to include the indigent of Baltimore regardless of sex, age, or race. Further, he called upon his trustees to create an orphanage for Black children in Baltimore.”

Sam Mollin, student body president at Hopkins, called Wednesday’s news disappointing. But he said he is proud the university is confronting its history.

“You see him everywhere. There’s pictures of him in the dining hall. We celebrate Johns Hopkins’s birthday every year,” said Mollin, who is a senior. “Johns Hopkins, he was celebrated as an abolitionist. I’m disappointed to hear that that does not seem to have been the reality.”

An image of Hopkins appears in the student government’s logo. But that is likely to change. “We don’t want a slaveowner to be in our logo,” Mollin said.

A growing number of colleges and universities across the country — and around the world — have been delving into history that had long been hidden, ignored, unknown or covered up.

In 2003, Brown University’s then-president, Ruth Simmons, launched a study into the school’s connections to the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. It revealed in 2006 that the Ivy League school benefited from that trade, which had been pervasive in Rhode Island.

At the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., students pushed in 2007 for answers on the school’s connections to slavery. In response, William & Mary began a historical research initiative in 2009 called the Lemon Project, named for a man enslaved at the school. Researchers learned that at least 180 people had been enslaved by the college from its founding in 1693 into the 19th century.

In 2016, Georgetown University revealed that 272 enslaved people had been sold by Maryland Jesuits in 1838, helping to pay off a pressing debt at the school. The sale was orchestrated by two priests who each served as president of the university in turn. Many of the enslaved ended up in Louisiana, where they lived and worked under dreadful conditions on cotton and sugar plantations, according to a report produced by a university panel.

Last month, archaeologists announced they had found evidence of the people enslaved on a former plantation owned by the religious order that founded Georgetown.

At the University of Virginia, which has long honored its founder, Thomas Jefferson, a 2018 report disclosed a far more complicated history — one in which slavery played an integral part in the founding, construction and early years of the university. Jefferson’s first memory was of being carried on a pillow by an enslaved person, the university’s report noted, and his dying moments were eased by an enslaved person who adjusted his pillow.

As more schools launch their own inquiries, others have continued their research and launched efforts to reckon with these truths. Some, including Brown, U-Va. and William & Mary, have built or are building memorials. Brown created a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

U-Va. continued its research, focusing on the years of segregation at the public university. Georgetown apologized, instituted an admissions boost to benefit descendants of the enslaved, and announced last year that the school would fund community initiatives that would benefit descendants. Georgetown students had demanded reparations.

Hopkins has now joined Universities Studying Slavery, which includes about 70 schools in five countries. Among them are the University of Mississippi, Clemson University, Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and McGill University in Canada.

The group’s mission has expanded in scope to include questions of racism more broadly. The inquiries are looking at issues as varied as whether Ku Klux Klan money helped found particular schools; resistance to integration; and institutional support for eugenics and other racist science.

Kirt von Daacke, a U-Va. history professor active in these initiatives, earned his doctorate from Hopkins. He noted that the university’s Homewood campus in Baltimore had been the site of a plantation held by Charles Carroll — a signer of the Declaration of Independence who enslaved people. Von Daacke said he is glad Hopkins is unearthing and confronting its past.

“As with every school, we probably should have done it a lot sooner,” he said, “but it’s important that they’re doing it, and it appears that they’re thinking big in how they’re tackling it.”

An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect first name for the signer of the Declaration of Independence.