‘Abolitionist’ Johns Hopkins actually owned slaves, university named after him reveals

Francis Akhalbey December 10, 2020
Johns Hopkins University revealed the man who funded its establishment was a slave owner -- Photo via Wiki Commons

It had long been believed 19th-century businessman and philanthropist, Johns Hopkins, was a staunch abolitionist, but a recent announcement by leaders of the highly prestigious university and the hospital he is named after reveals Hopkins actually owned slaves before the civil war.

The revelation came following an initiative the institution launched in 2013 to “deeply explore” its history. The joint statement to the institution’s community was released on Wednesday by 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.

According to the statement, government census records show Hopkins, who was a Quaker, owned at least four slaves somewhere around the mid-1800s.

“For most of the last century, our institutions believed Johns Hopkins to be an early and staunch abolitionist whose father, a committed Quaker, had freed the family’s enslaved people in 1807. But over the past several months, research being done as a part of the Hopkins Retrospective has caused us to question this narrative,” the statement said.

“We now have government census records that state Mr. Hopkins was the owner of one enslaved person listed in his household in 1840 and four enslaved people listed in 1850. By the 1860 census, there are no enslaved persons listed in the household.”

Hopkins bequeathed $7 million in his will following his death in 1873 to fund the establishment of a hospital, training colleges, an orphanage and a university,” The Washington Post reported. That amount was believed to be the largest philanthropic donation in the country’s history at the time. In his will, however, the then merchant and railroad investor instructed the hospital render services to all Baltimore indigents irrespective of sex, age, or race upon its establishment. He also directed his trustees to set up an orphanage for Black children in the city.

“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,” the statement added.

“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.”

In an opinion piece for The Post, Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at the university, said the revelation will raise eyebrows about the philanthropist and also cast a dark cloud on the university around a time its researchers have been lauded for their efforts in helping in the fight against 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. “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.”

Every Christmas Eve, the university holds a ceremony at Hopkins’ gravesite in Baltimore to commemorate the anniversary of his death. The university’s “History & Mission” section on its website updated its page on December 9 to include Hopkins’ history as a slave owner, saying there is “strong evidence” he “held enslaved people in his home until at least the mid-1800s.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 10, 2020


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