Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Reexamining the Narrative

Reexamining the Narrative

A researcher looks over documents on a table
Allison Seyler of Hopkins Retrospective examines documents from the Hopkins family and census records.

In mid-December, Johns Hopkins officials shared a difficult revelation with the Johns Hopkins community: newly discovered records showing that Johns Hopkins, the institution’s founder and namesake, held enslaved people in his home during the mid-1800s.

The documents, including census records and corroborating materials, contradict previous accounts of Hopkins as an early abolitionist whose father freed the family’s enslaved people in the early 1800s and “complicate the understanding we have long had of Johns Hopkins,” university and hospital leaders wrote in a message to the Johns Hopkins community on Dec. 9.

Though significant additional research is needed for a full understanding of Johns Hopkins’ life, these new records show that the connection of Johns Hopkins and his family to slavery was more extensive than previously known.

“The fact that Mr. Hopkinshad, at any time in his life, a direct connection to slavery — a crime against humanity that tragically persisted in the state of Maryland until 1864 — is a difficult revelation for us, as we know it will be for our community, at home and abroad, and most especially our Black faculty, students, staff, and alumni,” wrote JHU President Ronald J. Daniels; Paul Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine; and Kevin Sowers, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine. 

“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.”

The research that led to this discovery is ongoing — led by Martha S. Jones, Johns Hopkins Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and professor of history — with many questions yet to be answered. In addition to continued efforts to uncover and establish previously unknown facts about Johns Hopkins, a future phase of research is expected to include significant Hopkins-affiliated families such as the Wyman and Garrett families. 

“Accordingly, we have requested that this future phase include research on George Peabody so that we can more fully understand things that we may not know today about Mr. Peabody’s relationships and business dealings,” wrote Peabody Institute Dean Fred Bronstein in a December letter to the Peabody community.

“While we have no reason to think that Peabody himself was a slaveholder, in truth, there is no way for us to know without further research what his relationship was to slavery. So, based on this experience with Johns Hopkins, we are committing ourselves to undertake this fact-finding process,” noted Bronstein. He has enlisted Peabody archivist Matt Testa to work with Sheridan Library researchers and others to lead this process specifically as it pertains to George Peabody.

“We already know through the history of the institute, despite its founding as a community cultural center, that it was not welcoming to Black people for much of that history,” Bronstein added. “As we grapple with the work that we are doing in anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion today, we must learn and understand more about our own history, including the institute’s historical relationship to communities of color in Baltimore. My hope is that we can build on this initial research around Mr. Peabody, to better understand the history of the institute that is his namesake.” 

Sue De Pasquale