Martha S. Jones is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project. Her books include “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.”

To some, it is an all-too-familiar story and perhaps not a significant one in a year of racial reckoning: Another elite college discovers ties to slavery. But for many of us who work at Johns Hopkins University, the shattered myth of our university founder, long admired as a Quaker and abolitionist, rattles our school community as well.

Johns Hopkins University confirmed Wednesday that its namesake benefactor owned enslaved people. Hopkins, the descendant of Maryland planters, largely derived his wealth from real estate, railroads, banking — and by being party to slavery’s crime against humanity. The historical record makes clear that Hopkins claimed four men as his property on the 1850 Census and, before that, his business dealings included transactions in which Black Americans were among collateral for a loan.

As leader of the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project and part of a team that uncovered this story over the past six months, I remained nonplussed during most of this work. As a historian I have long investigated how 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. Before the Civil War, Americans held more wealth in enslaved people than they did in railroads, banks and factories combined.

It turns out that Hopkins engaged in all of these endeavors. He enslaved people who likely tended to his comforts at home, without compensation or recourse. That was all too common in Maryland before the Civil War. It was also all too callous for a man whose vast riches financed the university for which I work today.

The historian in me took in these revelations as raw facts — until the last time I pulled on my university sweatshirt. It fits just right, with a high collar stitched from soft, thick cotton. It has kept me warm on chilly mornings. It has helped keep me grounded over long months of Zoom teaching. When I glanced down and saw JOHNS HOPKINS stitched in white across my chest, I remembered my connection to the students who appear on my screen for class.

One arm sticking out of the right sleeve, I stopped and slid the thing back off. It was a small gesture of reckoning but a sincere one.

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. 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.

As a new employee, I sat through an orientation that told of how Johns Hopkins had come from a long line of Quakers who had, out of conviction, manumitted their slaves. We were told that Hopkins was an abolitionist, a Union man and a great friend to “poor colored” people for whom our hospital was, from the outset, intended to care. Even more reassuring, our university was founded in 1876, more than a decade after slavery’s abolition in 1865.

Our university stood apart, many of us assumed, from places like Brown University, where some early benefactors were involved in the transatlantic slave trade; or the University of Alabama, where an enslaved man named Sam was whipped by the university president in front of faculty; or the University of North Carolina, where enslaved people constructed halls of learning for men who deemed those Black laborers to be little more than chattel.

Displacing myth with historical fact is difficult but necessary. Historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a one-time faculty member at Hopkins, warned against too easily accepting founding myths when he chronicled the self-serving tales told during the 1992 commemoration of Christopher Columbus landing on Hispaniola 500 years before. The occasion was too much a glorification of European aggression and too little a reckoning with the brutal cost that colonization inflicted on indigenous peoples, Trouillot warned.

Trouillot’s lesson is one that we at Johns Hopkins should have heeded long ago. We, too, are guilty of indulging in too much myth and not enough hard history. Research reveals that the story long told about Hopkins as a Quaker and abolitionist, descended from men who freed their slaves, was adopted just after the university celebrated its semicentennial in 1926. In 1929, an admiring grandniece published a set of reminiscences that erased her uncle’s role in slaveholding. Fifty years later, in time for our 1976 centennial, the university’s magazine published a short biography of Hopkins that repeated the same half-truths. This is the story we’ve told ever since, until now.

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. 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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