The Founder of Johns Hopkins Owned Enslaved People. Our University Must Face a ReckoningRoundup
tags: slavery, Johns Hopkins, colleges and universities
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.
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