Johns Hopkins Guilty of “Crimes Against Humanity,” or
an Orthodox Friend who Ultimately Tended
to His Own Garden without Slave Labor?
In December of 2020 a professor at Johns Hopkins University offered a scathing opinion of the University’s founder in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post. At the same time, the University repeated the allegations on its various web sites where, for the most part, they have remained despite research to the contrary.
In this condemnation which appeared opposite the editorial page, the author accused Johns Hopkins of “crimes against humanity,” and of holding slaves in bondage for his personal comfort without compensation, and for accepting slaves as collateral for debts owed him in the conduct of his grocery business. To conclude, the professor writes:
Research reveals that the story long told about Hopkins as a Quaker and abolitionist, descended from men who freed their slaves, was adopted just after the university celebrated its semicentennial in 1926. In 1929, an admiring grandniece published a set of reminiscences that erased her uncle’s role in slaveholding. Fifty years later, in time for our 1976 centennial, the university’s magazine published a short biography of Hopkins that repeated the same half-truths. This is the story we’ve told ever since, until now.
Going forward, my work will involve investigating our founder’s relationship to slaveholding and, as much as possible, understanding the lives of those he held enslaved. Solemnity is tempering my school spirit. It is time to retire my sweatshirt, however comfortable it was. It is also time to retire old myths about Johns Hopkins and the sense of ease they have given our university community. Only with that can our reckoning begin.
The problem with myths and institutional propaganda about founders, is sorting out facts from fictions. Does Johns Hopkins deserve the scathing comments of one of the University’s widely published and acclaimed scholars that have been endorsed by the University's web sites and observations by its current president?
There is no simple answer. There is no question that the accusations in the Post and on the University web sites are extreme and unwarranted, but what can be learned about Johns Hopkins’s relationship to slaves and slavery? In the first place, as his filiopietistic grand niece (Helen Hopkins Thom) pointed out in 1929, no large body of financial or personal papers of Johns Hopkins have survived. While some have alleged that the loss was deliberate because Johns Hopkins wanted to cover his tracks, the likely reason is that they were destroyed in the great Baltimore fire of 1904 when much of his warehouse property and his bank were destroyed. Instead, probing the question of Johns Hopkins views and actions with regard to slavery rests mainly on the public record, although a few fragments of his correspondence have surfaced and are reproduced on the library website of the University.
The surviving evidence does not paint as severe a portrait of Johns Hopkins as the op-ed alleges, and in fact offers no definite proof that Johns Hopkins ever owned or abused slaves. Indeed it suggests that he came to adopt the teachings of his Quaker mother with regard to the abolition of slavery, and rejected the acceptance of slaves in return for payment of debts that had been incurred with his firm, Hopkins Brothers.
Slave schedule for Baltimore County in 1850 indicating Johns Hopkins with 4 slaves
and slaves attributed to his closest neighbors, James Lester and Solomon Hillen
The questions that arise with regard to Johns Hopkins and Slavery must first address the direct evidence that appears to confirm that he did own slaves in 1850, which is the single piece of evidence on which the most egregious assertions of the op-ed were based. In the summer of 2020 one scholar teaching at Hopkins relayed a census record to the writer of the op-ed that appeared to confirm Johns Hopkins as a slave owner. Is there any collaborating evidence that these four individuals were John’s Hopkins slaves? Does the Census record even itself prove that the four men were Johns Hopkins’ slaves? Based on what is now known about the compilation of the 1850 Slave Schedules they could easily have been term slaves (slaves who had been promised their freedom) hired by William Waddell, a Scottish immigrant gardener who laid out and began the once internationally known 60 acres of gardens at Clifton.
The park at Clifton in 1874 with the greenhouse in the upper right
courtesy of S.J. Martenet & Co.
The Gardens at Clifton were the main focus of Hopkins at his estate from the late 1840s until his death in 1873 when his estate inventory reveals the nature and extent of his botanical interests. By 1860 William Waddell and the slaves are gone replaced by another Scottish horticulturalist who remains with the estate after Hopkins’s death when it becomes the property of Johns Hopkins University. Only after emancipation do Black laborers return as wage earners to tend the Gardens at Clifton under William Fowler who was at work at Clifton by 1857.
Secondly the Quaker context in which Johns Hopkins was raised and the influence of both Hannah Janney Hopkins and Elizabeth Janney on Johns Hopkins’s actions with regard to slaves and slavery deserves closer scrutiny. This includes what appears to be a crisis of conscience that came with the death of two brother partners in Hopkins Brothers in the midst of a deep economic depression (1837-1841) that led to the dissolution of the firm in 1846 and placed Johns Hopkins firmly on the road to abolition, if qualified by a belief in compensation to the slave owners, much as Abraham Lincoln advocated in his last months as President. In extracts from surviving letters from his sister in 1831-2, and an 1840 letter from Johns Hopkins to his mother, Johns Hopkins’s troubled conscience is made clear. His mother Hannah (1774-1846) came to Baltimore to be with him in 1841 and was known for her anti-slavery views in the context of Orthodox Quaker doctrine that read members out of meeting if they continued to own slaves. It is likely she had more influence on Johns who remained single, than she did with Samuel who chose to be married an Episcopalian and was read out of meeting for owning slaves.
In studying slavery and those who advocated slavery in the United States, it is imperative to fully evaluate the surviving evidence, especially if the intent is to learn from and correct past mistakes and evil perceptions of race that continue long after the institution of slavery is abolished. In the context of a well-entrenched institution of slavery well-intentioned individuals including Johns Hopkins fought slavery from many different perspectives, ranging from William Lloyd Garrison who would reject the constitutional government of the United States altogether, to Johns Hopkins who used his fortune before and after the Civil War to benefit people of color and supported the successful war effort to abolish slavery as an evil institution. Both were rightfully called abolitionists.
As the people of color from Baltimore and beyond declaimed on the announcement of the dispersal of Johns Hopkins’s fortune in April 1873, nine months before he died, Johns Hopkins was a firm supporter of the Black community:
Whereas Johns Hopkins, Esq., has recently added his name to the list of those who by their lives have sought success only that it might enable their warm-hearted philanthropy the more to serve the great cause of a common humanity; and whereas for the first time in the history of Maryland a generous impulse, throbbing in the noble breast of one of its best citizens, who, regarding not the clamor of the hour, but realizing the demands of the times, at the dictation of statesmanlike views, unbiassed [sic] by popular prejudice, has elevated himself above all other men in Maryland, in the mode and manner of the distribution of his charity, and out of his private means donated to the public good, without distinction of race or color, more than four millions of dollars to endow a free hospital and a home for colored orphans in Baltimore. Therefore be it
Resolved by the Colored Citizens of Baltimore City, in Mass Meeting Assembled, That Johns Hopkins, Esq., heartily receives our warmest expression of heartfelt thanks for his generosity in regarding and recognizing our race in his great act of munificence.
Resolved, That Johns Hopkins, Esq., will ever be regarded as the friend of the colored race, and that we will teach our children to do honor to his memory when we shall have passed away, because of his noble liberality of spirit, and the comprehensiveness of mind characterizing his conduct in recognizing our race as being entitled to equal consideration and treatment with all others.
Resolved. That a copy of these resolutions be presented to Johns Hopkins, Esq., signed by the officers of this meeting.
Only further division is accomplished by a misinterpretation of facts, and ignoring the good men and women do with their accumulated wealth before and after their death.
Maryland State Archivist, Retired
 https://osf.io/zra5f/ Note that the citations for most of the references made in this essay are to be found in this collaborative assessment of Johns Hopkins and Slavery. Otherwise the citations will be found here.
 It is likely that the acquisition of slaves as collateral for unpaid debts by Hopkins Brothers precipitated Johns Hopkins resistance to acquiring slaves as his share of the profits of the firm in accord with Quaker discipline. His brother Samuel and his Pittsburg partner, James Ross, are another matter. Johns Hopkins was a partner in the 1830s until dissolution in 1846, and does bear some responsibility for the other members of the firm accepting slaves as compensation for their shares in the business. It is clear however that the collection of debts however obtained was delegated to other members of the firm. An example is provided by the securities James Ross, the firm’s managing partner, lost on his way to collect them. See the Baltimore Sun for August 8, 1840.
composite made from https://www.familysearch.org/
 Baltimore County Register of Wills (Inventories), OPM 11, 1873-1874. The inventory of the Clifton greenhouse plants is three pages which provides an excellent indication of what is needed to reconstruct the horticulture of the estate.
 “The Economics of Lincoln's Proposal for Compensated Emancipation,” Andrew Weintraub, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology , Apr., 1973, Vol. 32, No. 2
(Apr., 1973), pp. 171-177