It’s a tale that has long been repeated at the university and medical center in Baltimore that bear his name: In 1807, the 12-year-old Johns Hopkins was summoned home from boarding school to work the fields of the family’s sprawling tobacco farm in Maryland after his father, following the directives of his Quaker faith, freed the family’s slaves.
Young Johns grew up to be a wildly successful businessman and, as the story goes, a committed abolitionist. And on his death in 1873, he left $7 million — the largest philanthropic bequest in American history at that time — to found the nation’s first research university, along with a hospital that would serve the city’s poor “without regard to sex, age or color.”
Hopkins’s Quaker rectitude has been a touchstone for the institution he founded. But an important part of that origin story, it turns out, is untrue.
On Wednesday, Johns Hopkins University released new research revealing that there were enslaved people in its founding benefactor’s household as late as 1850. And while the Hopkins family’s entanglements with slavery are complicated, the university has so far found no evidence of Johns Hopkins’s father freeing any enslaved people.
As for the longstanding claims that Hopkins himself held abolitionist beliefs, it is unclear whether they rest on any evidence at all.
In a letter to the Hopkins community, the leaders of the university, medical school and medical system announced a multiyear effort to further study the Hopkins family’s connections with slavery, which it called “a crime against humanity.”
The revelation about Johns Hopkins, the leaders said, “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 recent years, a growing number of universities have confronted their historical entanglements with slavery. Many, sometimes in response to student activism, have renamed buildings or removed statues of slaveholders, or created prominent memorials to the enslaved people who built and served the campus.
Johns Hopkins University, founded after the Civil War by a supposedly antislavery benefactor, might seem to have largely sidestepped that reckoning, even as it increasingly acknowledged how the university (which did not admit its first Black undergraduate until 1945) has been shaped by Jim Crow and racism.
But last spring, a researcher at the Maryland State Archives became aware of an 1850 census record listing four enslaved people in the household of a man named Johns Hopkins, and contacted the university. Its president, Ronald J. Daniels, asked Martha S. Jones, a history professor, to investigate the matter as part of a broader exploration of the university’s history of discrimination announced in July, in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests.
In an interview, Mr. Daniels said the news of Hopkins’s slaveholding was “obviously extremely painful.” But he added that it was important to tell the full story of the man, citing the university’s motto — the truth will set you free.
“You want your origin story to be more than mythical,” Mr. Daniels said. “For an origin story to be foundational and durable, it also has to be true.”
How the news will land at the university or in Baltimore more broadly, a majority Black city with which the university has often had fraught relations, remains to be seen. But Mr. Daniels said he hoped that “unflinching introspection” and transparent disclosure would create “a stronger foundation for our relationship.”
Asked if he imagined the university’s name might be challenged, he said that while it was important to fully acknowledge Hopkins’s slaveholding, the institution wasn’t defined by it.
“Over the course of our almost 150 years of history, there’s been lots of scope for choice in the way in which we charted our mission, and the way in which we’ve taken the best from the bequest we received,” he said.
Few personal papers of Hopkins and his family survive. To begin fleshing out the story of the Hopkins family and slavery, Professor Jones worked with Allison Seyler, the program manager of an existing Hopkins history project at the university’s library, to dig into legal, census and other records.
In addition to the 1850 record, the researchers found an 1840 census entry showing one enslaved person in the Hopkins household. (The 1860 census does not list enslaved people in his household.) They also found documents from the 1830s showing that Hopkins and his firm sometimes sought to acquire enslaved people to settle debts.
But Professor Jones, whose scholarship focuses on Black political activism in 19th-century America, also looked at just how the university came to tell a rosy and, it appears, erroneous story about Johns Hopkins to begin with.
“The story of Hopkins’s forebears having freed enslaved people, of Hopkins as an abolitionist, suited us as an institution,” she said.
That a man of Hopkins’s wealth and position would own or trade in enslaved people is not in itself surprising. Slavery remained legal in Maryland, one of four slave states that stayed in the Union, until shortly before the end of the Civil War.
Professor Jones’s research report notes that at Hopkins’s death, some newspaper articles did refer to his and his family’s history of slaveholding. One recounted a story about his grandfather manumitting enslaved people. (Professor Jones found records of the grandfather freeing eight enslaved people in 1778, but keeping dozens of others in bondage.)
Another article noted Hopkins’s generous bequest to “three colored servants,” one of whom he was said to have granted freedom to years earlier but who had “remained faithfully in his service ever since.” (But Professor Jones writes that she has so far found no record of Hopkins freeing any enslaved people.)
In the 20th century, Professor Jones found, a new story, based on family reminiscences and scrambled facts, began to take shape.
In 1917, a former director of the Hopkins hospital, in an article, told the story about Hopkins’s father, Samuel, manumitting his slaves, which he seems to have gotten from interviews with Hopkins family members.
In 1929, the university’s press published “Johns Hopkins: A Silhouette,” a fond biography by his grandniece, Alice Thom. (Hopkins had no children.) That book repeated the story about Samuel Hopkins, while also generally depicting slavery as “a benign institution” and enslaved people as “contented and loyal,” Professor Jones writes.
That story caught on, and was frequently repeated in newspaper articles and books. And it was also one the university reached for, Professor Jones said, when recounting its history.
A 1974 article in the alumni magazine repeated that story, as did a 1976 article in American Heritage describing how “the hard realities of the working life abruptly dropped onto his young shoulders when, in 1807, his father’s adherence to a new Quaker policy led him to free all his slaves.”
The story was repeated again in 1995, in an article commemorating the 200th anniversary of Hopkins’s birthday, noting his “fervent abolitionism.” And it also appears in an article currently on the website of the Hopkins medical system, entitled “Who Was Johns Hopkins?”
Johns Hopkins’s personal views on slavery, Professor Jones said, require further research. So far, she said, she had found no evidence that he ever espoused or promoted abolition, which her report defines as “the immediate and unqualified end to slavery in the United States.”
She said it would also be important to look at Hopkins’s founding bequest — which envisioned a hospital that, unusually for the time, treated Black patients, but in separate wards — through a fresh lens.
“On its face, it’s a complex mix of benevolence and the institutionalization, in a post-slavery world, of what we have come to call segregation,” she said.
In their letter, the university and medical leaders called Johns Hopkins’s personal legacy “complex and contradictory.” More research was needed, they said, before coming to any “firm conclusions” about the implications of his slaveholding for the institutions he created.
Professor Jones said the broader project she is leading, called “Hard Histories at Hopkins,” will address how the past informs contentious issues in the present, like the university’s controversial plan to create an armed private police force. (The plan was paused in July, in the wake of the racial justice protests.)
And she said it was important that Black Baltimoreans be seen as a central audience for the research. “This is the community writ large that lives with the legacies of slavery, racism and inequality,” she said.
The revelations of Johns Hopkins’s slaveholding may be a reputational blow to the university. But the real “hard history,” she said, was borne by the enslaved, who were listed on the census forms without even the dignity of a name.
“We shouldn’t forget that,” she said. “That’s where the tragedy is. That’s why we should be shattered.”