Unearthing Johns Hopkins, The Enslaver of Baltimore’s Darker Brothers

Quiet as it is kept, prior to emancipation wealthy white Baltimoreans going by the name of Johns Hopkins did not roam the town’s waterfront in numbers that would rival the city’s famed wharf rats.

Arguably no name is more well-known in Baltimore than Johns Hopkins other than perhaps Francis Scott Key or Edgar Allen Poe. Much of his staying power is due to the sprawling medical system that carries the name of its benefactor.

As a Black child and product of Baltimore public schools from K-12, I was under the firm belief that the famed Johns Hopkins was an abolitionist and friend to us Blacks. Although Baltimorean Thurgood Marshall recently had successfully argued before the US Supreme Court that separate schools based on race was not equal, children in underserved communities like me in West Baltimore house projects of McCulloh Homes were being taught to revere Hopkins as much as President Abraham Lincoln.

School photo of author as a student in West Baltimore’s The Historic Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary School. Circa 1972

As an adult, the depths of my miseducation (again) slapped me out of complacency in May 2019 when my independent research revealed that thee savior of crippled and orphaned highly melanated child residents of the city (Johns Hopkins) owned four black men as slaves. Third grade me would have been shook. Hopkins at this time continued the lie that Hopkins was an abolitionist.

All Hail #BaltimoreTwitter

As would any savvy intellectual do in the age of Al Gore’s Internet, I took my concerns about the veracity of the federal census (that conflicted with my years of learned yet divested public school education) to social media for validation. Even though “Johns” as a given name is odd, my small sphere of #BaltimoreTwitter concluded it was not unique within the larger Hopkins family.

Screen grab of social media conversation in May 2019 that set off a month’s-long investigation that proved Johns Hopkins enslaved people months before the JHU administration copped to his activities.

Whether the Johns Hopkins I located on the 1850 census who self-identified as an enslaver was the same financial director of B & O railroad or some lowly cousin still needed to be proven. The confusion began with a Quaker/farmer born in 1720 on an Anne Arundel County planation named Johns Hopkins Sr. Because of his success, the family patriarch (and “our” Johns’ grandfather), others in his family lionized his name. The adoration was well earned as elder Hopkins lorded over 500 acres of Anne Arundel County land (gifted by British land barons) using the blood and sweat of generations of enslaved Africans, just as his father before him had done.

Descendants, owing much of their inherited fortune and privilege to the immoral use of slave labor (and continued oppression of human rights that continues today) embraced the name and seemingly his white supremacist beliefs. When Hopkins Sr died in 1783, he left the largess of his estate to be split equally between his two oldest sons. Millionaire extraordinaire Johns’ father Samuel Hopkins who inherited half of elders’ riches was a reluctant Quaker and an enthusiastic slave owner as well.

Screenshot of a twitter conversation on the significance of my uncovering that Johns Hopkins himself owned people as slaves in addition to close members of his family.
Screengrab of continued twitter conversation dated May 8, 2019 on the significance of my uncovering that Johns Hopkins himself owned people as slaves in addition to close members of his family.

Hypothetically speaking, the slave owner named Johns Hopkins that I found on the census record could have been a cousin, nephew, uncle or anyone else but the namesake of the city’s most heralded of institutions. But it was him. The abolitionist who corresponded with President Abraham Lincoln owned men, women, and children as slaves.

Timeline of Discovery

As a genealogist, I spent nearly the better part of eight months and hundreds of hours in 2019 creating a definitive Hopkins family tree starting with his grandparents. I concluded that there was only one other man named Johns Hopkins in his family living in Maryland in both 1810 and 1820. It was his uncle Johns Hopkins Jr, who was a Quaker/slave owner who moved to Philadelphia, but there were no other adults in his family with that name living in Maryland in the forty years between 1830 and 1860.

Johns Hopkins, son of Samuel and Hannah and grandson of Johns Hopkins, Sr who took the surname of his mother Margaret Johns as his given name.
Johns Hopkins, son of Samuel and Hannah and grandson of Johns Hopkins, Sr who took the surname of his mother Margaret Johns as his given name.

In May 2019, I was convinced that the evidence I gathered was a “historical find” and reached out to two historians who encouraged my research. Both scholars I confided in had written biographies of two of Maryland’s most baddass women: Dr. Joseph R. Fitzgerald, on Civil Rights activist Gloria Richardson leader of the Cambridge Movement (author of The Struggle is Eternal) and Dr. Kate Clifford Larson on Harriet Tubman (author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero). The authors, as one might expect, are both baddasses in my book.

The photographs below are from the Maryland Room at Enoch Pratt library taken in June 2019.

By fall of 2019, I had firmly documented my findings that Johns Hopkins was a slave holder using genealogy and records from Enoch Pratt Library and the Maryland State Archives. Although I began in earnest uncovering just how my miseducation was so complete that a skeptical Black journalist and graduate of an HBCU was duped. Besides Dr. Fitzgerald and Dr. Clifford- Larson, I confided in the significance of my research with a few close friends and family and archivists at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis.

Once the issue of slave owner was decided, I began looking into the secret nature of the private hospital, the associated the scandals, and just why Black people feared being snatched from the streets and taken to the hospital for medical experimentation. The pursuit of my book: Johns Hopkins: The Body Snatcher Hospital seemed more important than resurrecting a dead man who took with him to his grave how the most prominent member of a family of generational enslavers would become known as an abolitionist.

When the 2020 new year arrived bringing with it a failed coup attempt upon the US Capital by emboldened white nationalists, a virus pandemic racing the globe, and a cross country move from Maryland to California, much of my attention was diverted from Hopkins’ shady dealings. By Black Lives Matter summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I resumed writing chapters for my book on Hopkins’ closeted medical experiments using Blacks as guinea pigs.

In July 2020, I emailed the archivist at Johns Hopkins University with questions about Hopkins’ will.

email Correspondence between myself and James Stimpert, archivist at JHU dated July 13, 2020, months prior to JHU’s announcement.

In December 2020, John Hopkins University president Ron Daniels took me to school.
In a Washington Post article with the headline “Johns Hopkins, benefactor of namesake hospital and university, was an enslaver”, Daniels cited the exact same census I unearthed and announced to the public the conclusion I arrived at nearly 18 months earlier – Johns Hopkins financed The Baltimore and Ohio rail line, and thwarted Tubman’s underground railroad.

The Hopkins elite’s delayed acceptance of available data that existed in the public sphere for over 150 years spurred me to delve deeper into what could possibly be one of Maryland’s greatest scandals.

Next up: Catherine Pugh’s fall from grace in what would be known as the Healthy Holly scandal set the wheels in motion for the biggest expose in the state’s slave owning history. #HardHistory

”I came across the banker Johns Hopkins. So, they were slaveowner, right?”

A journalist’s interpretation of 1850 slave census for Johns Hopkins in a May 2019 Twitter conversation

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