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Research Finds Johns Hopkins Founder Enslaved People

New research has provided evidence that the founder of Johns Hopkins University owned slaves, contradicting previous understandings that he was an a “staunch” abolitionist.

The research into Johns Hopkins’s ties to slavery was conducted by Martha Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and professor of history at the Baltimore university, and Allison Seyler, program manager of the Hopkins Retrospective, an initiative studying the university’s history.

“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,” senior leaders at Johns Hopkins and Johns Hopkins Medicine wrote in a universitywide message Wednesday. “But over the past several months, research being done as a part of the Hopkins Retrospective has caused us to question this narrative. 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.”

“There is no comprehensive biography of Mr. Hopkins and considerable additional research will be needed before we have a full picture of his life — research that we will be pursuing vigorously in the months ahead,” they wrote. “But we felt it was important to share this new information with you now, as part of our ongoing work, announced last summer, to deepen our historical understanding of the legacy of racism in our country, our city, and our institutions.”

Johns Hopkins leaders wrote they are “fully committed to continuing this research wherever it may lead.” They said the university will join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium and that they have asked Jones to bring together a group of colleagues to propose initiatives exploring the links between Johns Hopkins and slavery.

“In many ways, there’s little that is remarkable, in the context of the awful history of slavery in the United States, that a man of Johns Hopkins’ wealth and status was a slaveholder,” Jones said in a university news article. “While that doesn’t surprise me, the discovery does leave me with as many questions as answers, because we know too little about, in particular, the enslaved people in Hopkins’ household — who they were, what their lives were like, where and how they made their way after they were no longer enslaved. And I remain unsettled that we may not be able to know as much about them as we should want to know, and need to know, in order to tell the whole story.”

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