A Tale of Complicity in the City of Freddie Gray

A TRAIL OF DIRTY MONEY begins under the feet of Babe Ruth’s statue in Camden Yards ballpark and leads straight to Baltimore City’s largest private employer, an institution that wields international influence in the academic and medical communities.

Upon his death in 1873, the merchant Johns Hopkins bequeathed his fortune to begin a hospital and university in Baltimore. He left $5 million in trust, which would be close to $1 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars today. Hopkins’ obituary in The Baltimore Sun observed that this was “the largest endowment of any college in the United States,” double that of Harvard and well beyond those of Princeton and Cornell. Today, Johns Hopkins University still has one of the largest endowments in the nation, valued at more than $3.4 billion.

In the early aughts, slavery disclosure ordinances passed in cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Oakland, and San Francisco forced corporations like Aetna, AIG, JP Morgan Chase, and Wachovia to admit that they benefitted from the slave trade.

Many state legislatures followed suit by issuing formal apologies for slavery. But no East Coast or Southern port city has ever passed a corporate or institutional slavery disclosure ordinance. Perhaps because once we start following the money, we won’t like where it leads.




At first, Joseph S. Donovan made use of the slave pens of other dealers in Baltimore, advertising one on “Pratt Street, near Cove,” but in 1858, with business booming, he had his own built on the southwest corner of Camden and Eutaw streets. His advertisements in The Baltimore Sun declared, “Negros kept for 25 cents per day.”

When Donovan’s private slave jail (along with those of Campbell, Wilson, Hines, and Fairbank) was liberated on July 27, 1863, by Union Col. Birney, the officer wrote not just of men and women grotesquely and creatively chained, but of a four-month-old born in the pens and a two-year-old who had grown up there.

In addition to kenneling slaves for their traveling owners, Donovan sold slaves from 1843 up until his death in 1861, shipping them from Baltimore down to New Orleans. Ancestry.com lists the names of 1,685 of these slaves in its New Orleans Slave Manifests, and these account for only a fraction of Donovan’s shipments. When there weren’t slaves to sell, Donovan made them. There are court rulings against Donovan, charging him with kidnapping and trying to sell free blacks, mostly women and children.

Donovan appears to have specialized in preying on women and children, even if that meant thumbing his nose at the President of the United States. Donovan notoriously showed up in D.C. in the shadow of the White House at the home of William Williams, the coachman to three presidents, and seized his wife, two daughters, and three grandchildren. Williams was free but his wife (and therefore, his daughters and grandchildren) was technically not. A sitting president, Millard Fillmore, had to raise the money to buy the freedom of his employee’s family.

Note that Donovan died on the eve of the Civil War, on April 15, 1861. Yet his slave jail still needed liberating in 1863. It was kept in operation by his widow Caroline.

Donovan had used the proceeds of his slave trading to buy B&O Railroad stock, real estate, and even a seat on the City Council. Now that money would buy his widow a veneer of respectability and a new life as an antebellum philanthropist.

In the months following her husband’s death, Caroline Donovan transferred all of his stock into her name and moved out to the suburbs of Catonsville. Maryland, as a Union state, was not subject to Reconstruction, and so the Donovan fortune survived intact.

Caroline Donovan never remarried and she had no children. Shortly before her death in 1889, she designated the proceeds of six warehouses that she owned and rented “to be used for aiding colored people to emigrate to Liberia.” She left donations to the Catholic Church and Washington and Lee University. However, her most substantial gift was a $100,000 endowed chair (worth close to $3 million in 2015 dollars), the first in Johns Hopkins University’s history. This chair still carries her name, the Caroline Donovan Professorship in English Literature.



The second Caroline Donovan Professor of English Literature, John Calvin French, wrote that the university’s founder Johns Hopkins was “known to disapprove of slavery.”[i]

He was restating an opinion that originated with a 1929 biography published by Johns Hopkins’ own university press. The author, Helen Hopkins Thom, makes repeated references to her cousin as a “leading Abolitionist, hated and discounted by the slave owners.”[ii] This, in turn, is parroted by Hopkins University’s own materials, which laud their founder as “an abolitionist before the term was even invented.”[iii]

Yet the slave trade paid for the first endowed chair at a university founded by an reputed abolitionist. I had first approached this as incongruity, as an instance of how even those most opposed to racist institutions profit by them. But this is not incongruity. This is a symptom of the disease of settling for easy truths in the Land of Pleasant Living.

The origin myth of Johns Hopkins follows the usual rags-to-riches trajectory, with a progressive twist: unlike most of Baltimore’s elite, the Hopkins’ Quaker family freed their several hundred slaves in 1807. This act of conscience meant that Johns was forced to cut his schooling short to help out his family, who had “plunged from comparative affluence to semipoverty [sic].”[iv] But the industrious Johns pulled himself up by his bootstraps— he opened his own grocery business and shrewdly invested his profits.

What the official biography won’t tell you is that Johns Hopkins’ grandfather may have been the family’s only true abolitionist— he freed his slaves back in 1788 when the Maryland Society of Friends first made it a disownable offense. His son Samuel, Johns Hopkins’ father, somehow acquired more slaves and was content to let them work his tobacco planation for twenty more years. Samuel only suffered a crisis of conscience when he was faced not just with being disowned by his fellow Quakers, but being shunned in business dealings with them too.

This is what can pass for progressive in the annals of Baltimore history: an abolitionist can finance his business with the sale of hogsheads of tobacco, harvested by the family’s slaves before they were freed.

An abolitionist can write to customers in his own hand that “the lien on the Negroes is ample security for our debt.” And while it is technically true that Johns Hopkins never personally owned any slaves, his company Hopkins & Brothers did, accepting slaves as collateral and repossessing slaves to make good on debts. We can’t ask Mary, one of the repossessed slaves of the Keech family; or Harriet, a young woman who sat for two months in the Baltimore City slave jail for “safekeeping”; or Somerfield Savoy, a “negro apprentice” signed over to Hopkins’ care, whether they appreciated that distinction.



The campus of one of my hometown’s most progressive institutions, an institution that inaugurated the “Forums on Race in America” after the Freddie Gray protests, is still flanked by statues of Generals Lee and Jackson and a Confederate Women’s Monument.

But much less visible, but even more insidious than any statue, are the slave trade dollars that founded the system and maintain it. Johns Hopkins was certainly a better man than many of his contemporaries, but under a monstrous system, even the good guys get their hands dirty.

Some academic institutions have already acknowledged their ties to slavery. Brown University started the ball rolling with its Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, and others like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Emory, University of Alabama, College of William & Mary, University of Virginia, and Western Illinois University have followed suit. But too many institutions (including the one I teach at just up the street from Hopkins) have remained silent. We need to do more to counter the myth that great minds were misled by the prejudices of the time; we need to stop recasting the past as we wish it to be.

You’ve heard of #FergusonSyllabus and #BaltimoreSyllabus. As students head back to school this fall, we need to start crowdsourcing #HowMyUniversityBenefittedFromSlaveryToo.

Johns Hopkins.

Johns Hopkins.



[i] History of University, Baltimore: Hopkins UP, 1946: pg 16.

[ii] pg 48

[iii] Mike Field, “If He Could See Us Now: Mr. Johns Hopkins’ Legacy Strong:

University, hospital benefactor turned 200 on May 19, 1995” JHU Gazette

[iv] Abraham Flexner, Daniel Coit Gilman, Creator of the American Type of University, New York: Harcourt, 1946: pg 29.

About Shelley Puhak

Shelley Puhak is a poet and essayist from Baltimore. She is the author of two poetry collections, the more recent of which is the critically-acclaimed Guinevere in Baltimore. Her essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Fourth Genre.
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