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Johns Hopkins, long believed by university to be abolitionist, owned slaves, records show

Census records about the 19th-century philanthropist contrasts with university’s long-held beliefs about its founder.
Image: Johns Hopkins University
The Johns Hopkins University with MSE Library and Homewood House museum in the background on the Homewood Campus at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland on July 16, 2004.JHU Sheridan Libraries / Gado/Getty Images file

Johns Hopkins, the founder of the Baltimore research university and hospital who was was long believed to be a staunch and early abolitionist, owned slaves, the institution announced Wednesday.

Census records recently uncovered during research list Hopkins as owning several slaves in the mid-1800s.

"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," university President Ronald J. Daniels; Paul B. Rothman, dean of medical faculty; and Kevin W. Sowers, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System, wrote in a letter to the Johns Hopkins community. "By the 1860 census, there are no enslaved persons listed in the household."

It had been long thought that Hopkins' father freed the family's slaves in 1807, they wrote. It is now less clear if that was the case and whether Johns Hopkins was an abolitionist.

Image: Johns Hopkins, Painted Portrait
Johns Hopkins, painted portrait at 40 years of age, 1835.JHU Sheridan Libraries / Gado/Getty Images file

Johns Hopkins University was America's first research university, and it has been recognized and relied upon for a project to track and provide information surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hopkins founded the university through a multi-million dollar bequest after his death.

The philanthropist left $7 million in his will to open a hospital, orphanage and university; at the time it was the largest philanthropic bequest in the nation's history.

The records were uncovered as part of a research project, and the project's team learned in late spring about the possible existence of the 1850 census document showing Hopkins as a slaveholder, the school officials said.

The administrators called for more research to establish a clearer picture of Hopkins' life. There is no comprehensive biography, and his personal papers are thought to have been destroyed before his death or lost suddenly.

The previous narrative of Hopkins as an early abolitionist is mostly from a book that also said his father freed their slaves and was written by Hopkins' grandniece Helen Thom and published in 1929, the school officials said — and they admitted the university believed that without fully investigating the claims. Hopkins died in 1873.

But the research by Martha S. Jones and Allison Seyler "finds no evidence to substantiate Thom’s description of Johns Hopkins as an abolitionist," the university's message to the community says.

"They have been unable to document the story of Johns Hopkins’ parents freeing enslaved people in 1807, but they have found a partial freeing of enslaved people in 1778 by Johns Hopkins’ grandfather, and also continued slaveholding and transactions involving enslaved persons for decades thereafter," Wednesday's message says.

Jones, a history professor at the university, wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Wednesday that Thom's account of Hopkins was "a set of reminiscences that erased her uncle’s role in slaveholding."

"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."

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But, she wrote, "displacing myth with historical fact is difficult but necessary."

The university officials said that they don't know the names, circumstances or relationships of the enslaved people in the uncovered census records. They said it also not clear why in 1860 his household was listed as no longer having any slaves.

Details about the lives of those enslaved are among several questions raised by the research, they wrote.