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Revisions of an Ardent Historian

I learned of the recent revelation that Mr. Johns Hopkins (1795-1873), long reputed to have been a staunch abolitionist, was in fact a slaveholder, along with the rest of the world. News of this nature has surfaced before at other premier institutions, but as a Hopkins alumnus (Ph.D. 1998) and Hopkins Press author, this news was particularly personal. In my professional capacity as a historian, my own work is implicated and thus needs amending.

In October 2019 the Johns Hopkins University Press published my book, Republic of Numbers: Unexpected Stories of Mathematical Americans through History. This book consists of twenty biographical vignettes of Americans whose lives have involved mathematics. On page 89 of this book will be found the following passage, concerning the admission of Kelly Miller (1863-1939) as a graduate student at Hopkins in 1887:

"Ultimately the decision turned on an appeal to the personal beliefs of the founder of the university, the late Johns Hopkins himself. For Miller was black, and Hopkins had been a Quaker and an ardent abolitionist. Miller was admitted, the first African American graduate student of mathematics in the United States."

In short, I had absorbed the common understanding of Johns Hopkins as an abolitionist. My primary source for writing the above was Miller’s unpublished autobiography, written in the 1930s and held at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Miller wrote as follows:

"Subsequently I learned that when the proposition was under discussion a prominent railroad official, who was a member of the Board, advanced the opinion that the founder of the university, being a Quaker, stipulated that neither race nor color should form a bar against admission to either hospital or university. Other members of the Board accepted his views as correct, so my name was placed upon the rolls, and I entered upon a two years Post-Graduate course in Mathematics, physics, and astronomy."

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These words of Miller suggest that Mr. Hopkins’ reputation for racial liberality was already active by the 1880s, less than fifteen years after his death. It would be valuable to learn more about the deliberations of the JHU Board in the Miller case, and I have some ideas for investigating this which I may yet pursue when conditions permit. But Miller’s words do not explain how I came to embellish my account with the phrase “ardent abolitionist,” and I am at this time still unable to recover how I came to use those words. The phrase is certainly in accord with several now highly suspect publications about Mr. Hopkins that I have more recently read. For example, in 1974 Johns Hopkins University Archivist Kathryn A. Jacob in the Johns Hopkins Magazine asserted that “Johns Hopkins was a strong Unionist and abolitionist.” But I do not recall reading this at the time I was writing my chapter on Miller, about four years ago.

If I ever have the opportunity to revise Republic of Numbers I would write something like the following:

"Ultimately the decision turned on an appeal to what then were understood to be the personal beliefs of the founder of the university, the late Johns Hopkins himself. Twenty-first-century historical research of census data indicates that Hopkins, who had died in 1873, had been a slaveholder before the Civil War. But Miller, who was Black, appears to have benefited from what seems to be a reputation enjoyed by Mr. Hopkins as a Quaker with liberal views on racial matters. The university admitted Miller, the first African American graduate student of mathematics in the United States."

This incident is a reminder that the writing of history is not a static enterprise but should always be considered vulnerable to qualification and revision. An air of certitude can be compelling as a literary device, but humility in the face of new knowledge is always in order.

David Lindsay Roberts is an adjunct professor of mathematics at Prince George's Community College. He is the author of Republic of Numbers: Unexpected Stories of Mathematical Americans through History and American Mathematicians as Educators, 1893–1923: Historical Roots of the "Math Wars."

Learn more about Republic of Numbers: Unexpected Stories of Mathematical Americans through History at the following link: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/republic-numbers

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