A Complicated Past: Universities & The Legacy of Slavery

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By Richard Pedersen

On December 9th, 2020, President Daniels shared an email with the Johns Hopkins community that shattered previously-held notions regarding our institution’s founder and namesake. For decades, the Hopkins community believed its founder had been an ardent abolitionist dedicated to human freedom and equality. However, the reality is more complicated.

Research on Johns Hopkins’ personal history by Martha S. Jones and Allison Seyler led to the reveal of documents that indicated that in 1838, Hopkins’ firm had accepted ownership of a black American as collateral for commercial debt. Furthermore, in the 1840 census, Hopkins lists one enslaved person in his household. By 1850, that number had grown to four enslaved men, aged 18 to 50.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Pictured: 1850 census document listing enslaved peoples in Baltimore County, including Hopkins’ own enslaved workers, listed on the bottom right.

This research has also confirmed, however, Hopkins’ political views, which became increasingly progressive as the country entered the Civil War. His letters reaffirm his commitment to the Union, his endorsement of the Lincoln presidency, and his support for the cause of abolition. Documentation also revealed that Hopkins had purchased an enslaved person for the explicit purpose of freeing them from servitude. After the war, Hopkins’ contributions to the development of the community of Baltimore included the establishment of a hospital and orphanage to serve black citizens, achievements that were lauded by black community leaders upon his death.

These revelations raise a litany of questions, few of which have yet been answered. Why did Hopkins own slaves if he was so committed to the cause of abolition? How did his views on abolition change over time? How should Hopkins the man, and his involvement in chattel slavery, be remembered?

Most importantly, these revelations will require the Johns Hopkins community to decide how it would like to reckon with its complicated legacy. Perhaps we can look to other institutions that share a link to the American history of chattel slavery — learning from them may provide a path forward. 

Shining City on the Hilltop

Georgetown University’s link to slavery has long not been a secret. Georgetown’s official history recognizes the sale of over three hundred people in 1838 to pay off the university’s debt. By shipping hundreds of people to plantations in Louisiana, the university was able to continue to finance the education of a primarily wealthy, white, male, and predominantly southern student population.

However, Georgetown’s history is also more nuanced. Patrick Healy, Georgetown’s “second founder,” was a mixed-race man born as a slave. Nevertheless, in 1874, less than a decade after the Civil War and four decades after Georgetown’s sale of three hundred enslaved people, Healy became the first black president of a predominantly white university.

Even so, Georgetown only truly began reckoning with its slave-owning past in 2014. Two buildings under construction at the time were initially named after Jesuits who had organized the 1838 sale of the university’s slaves. Matthew Quallen, a writer for the undergraduate student newspaper, began publishing articles about these Jesuits and their role in Georgetown’s slave ownership. The articles set off student protests and, in response, the university established the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

The Working Group soon identified descendants of the slaves shipped to Louisiana in 1838. Most continued to live in Louisiana, and many remained in the same county as their ancestors. This discovery of living descendants sparked new debates at Georgetown regarding the institution’s obligation to these men and women.

The university readily granted descendants “legacy” status in applications, and by 2017 three descendants were accepted as undergraduates. The administration renamed the two buildings under construction, choosing instead to memorialize a descendant and a local black civil rights leader. The Working Group established new programs to track down more descendants, educate the university population, and fund further research into slavery in America.

Still, Georgetown’s student population continued to fight for more. In 2018, the undergraduate population voted strongly in favor of levying fees on students to fund a financial commitment to descendant communities. The editorial board of the student newspaper recommended that these funds be disbursed through a centralized investment committee, while other students argued for direct reparations.

However, the university administration resisted any such effort. The Working Group’s report, by then several years in the making, demurred on the prospects of a financial commitment, writing that the university would “[explore] the feasibility of admission and financial-aid initiatives that might be established for the descendant community.” This “exploration” ultimately culminated in an optional $27.20 fee for each student, which would raise roughly $400,000 annually to invest in descendant communities. This funding amounts to less than one-eighth the value of the initial 1838 sale, which in inflation-adjusted dollars would be worth roughly $3.3 million.

Leaders of descendant groups also decried the university’s response. Shepard Thomas, a descendant and student leader who organized the 2018 referendum, told the New York Times that Georgetown’s plan “delegitimizes and undermines student effort and the democratic vote of the undergraduate student body” and “contains no clear criteria, accountability measures or transparency with regards to construction or implementation.”

Backing Words with Action

Our own university’s response to its newfound history with slavery has followed closely in Georgetown’s steps. The university has established a working group similar to Georgetown’s in order to identify the extent of our institutional connections to slavery. These efforts have been remarkably open, with a website dedicated to archival research documenting the working group’s findings. The university has not, however, yet made a commitment of any kind, financial or otherwise, to support the descendants of any slaves owned by our founder.

SAIS itself, meanwhile, has made no community-wide statement about the revelations nor has it committed to any steps intended to address them. According to the administration, SAIS is “not involved directly with the plans to address the University’s history.”

The full extent of Johns Hopkins’ personal role in slavery is highly unlikely to approach matching the scale of the mass trafficking that financed Georgetown’s financial survival during its early years. However, it seems clear from Georgetown’s example that any successful effort at reconciliation and rebuilding must be predicated on a financial commitment to those whose lives were bought and sold for the sake of the institution.

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