Johns Hopkins, Previously Thought To Be An Abolitionist, Owned Slaves

While completing a university-led project, historians Martha S. Jones and Allison Seyler discovered that Johns Hopkins, founder of the university located in Baltimore, owned slaves. 

Their work “complicate[s] the understanding” members of the university’s community have with its founder, University President Ronald J. Daniels wrote in a letter released Wednesday (December 9). 

Jones and Seyler made the discovery while examining government census records that had previously been undiscovered, according to a report by NPR

The records show that Hopkins, born in 1795, enslaved African people as late as 1850. Previously, it was believed that Hopkins followed in the footsteps of his father who was influenced by Quaker faith to free slaves on the family’s plantation in 1807. 

In 1840, Census records show Hopkins enslaved one person, and four people in 1850. No slaves were listed by the 1860 Census, four years before Maryland abolished slavery. 

“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,” President Daniels and other school officials said in the letter. 

Hopkins died in 1873 at age 78, and left a $7 million fund to start an orphanage, hospital, and the university. That fortunate is equivalent to about $150 million today. 

Previously, the school has relied upon Hopkins’ will, letters, and a short book written by his grandniece as historical evidence of his being an abolitionist. In the book, Helen Tom described Hopkins as a “strong abolitionist,” pointing to the family’s freeing slaves in 1807. This act, according to Tom, created financial strain on the family and forced a 17-year-old Hopkins to find work in Baltimore.  

Researchers, however, didn't find any evidence to back up these claims. But they did find a letter from the Hopkins Brothers business firm from 1863 that accepted an enslaved African person as debt collateral. Additionally, they found an obituary that described Hopkins’ “antislavery political views.” 

No other information about the enslaved African people has been discovered. 

“Like so many others who have made meaningful contributions to our country’s history, Mr. Hopkins is a complex and contradictory person whose story holds within it multiple truths,” University officials said. 

Photos: Getty Images 

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