OPED: Johns Hopkins must atone for ties to slavery

Jennie Williams
Tribune News Service

Last year, Georgetown University joined other peer institutions in taking steps to address its historic ties to the slave trade. Johns Hopkins shares that history, which it means it shares the obligation to address it.

Deja Lindsey, 20, a junior at Georgetown University, talks on her cell phone in front of Healy Hall on campus, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Washington. After renaming the Mulledy and McSherry buildings at Georgetown University temporarily to Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, Georgetown University will give preference in admissions to the descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits as part of its effort to atone for profiting from the sale of enslaved people. Georgetown president John DeGioia announced Thursday that the university will implement the admissions preferences. The university released a report calling on its leaders to offer a formal apology for the university's participation in the slave trade.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The first endowed chair at Johns Hopkins was established in 1889 by Caroline Donovan, for whom the "Caroline Donovan Professorship in English Literature" is named. She is described as having been a prominent Baltimore philanthropist by the university's own materials.

But that description conceals more than it reveals: Caroline Donovan was also the wife of Joseph Donovan, one of the largest slave traders in the state's history.

Few traders anywhere rivaled Donovan's operations. By the Civil War, he had purchased more than 2,000 slaves in the Maryland area, all of whom he shipped to New Orleans to be resold. Most were permanently separated from their families.

For the Donovans, the slave trade was a lucrative business. The 1860 Census, taken the year before his death, listed Joseph Donovan's total wealth as $450,000­ — more than $12 million today. When he died, he left Caroline Donovan a very wealthy widow.

This seems damning in terms of Johns Hopkins' connection to the slave trade. Still, for the sake of rigor, it's worth looking at specifics. Did the $100,000 Donovan donated to John Hopkins in 1885 — more than $2.5 million in today's dollars — actually come from her husband's slave trading operations?

At the time of her donation, Caroline Donovan reported owning six warehouses located on Charles Street that produced between $4,000 and $5,000 yearly. If we assume she already owned all six warehouses at the time of her husband's death, and that her earnings were stable and continuous, Caroline Donovan may have accumulated $120,000 by the time she donated to JHU. In which case, the money was hers, not her husband's.

However, we must consider that Caroline Donovan's donation from her warehouse income — assuming it was the source — was only possible because she possessed significant wealth on which to live her day-to-day life. The source of that wealth was, without a doubt, her husband's career as a slave trader. Her money was his money, and his money was hers, and make no mistake: It was all blood money.

This parsing is important to understanding the story, but the distinction in question likely matters little to the descendants of people sold by Joseph Donovan, especially absent any evidence Caroline Donovan disagreed with her husband's career. This is not guilt by association. Her life, during and after his, was materially enriched by the slave trade. Even in death, the Donovans are surrounded by riches earned through the traffic of human beings. Their joint mausoleum is among the largest and most ornate in Baltimore's historic Green Mount Cemetery.

The easy solution to the problem of the Donovan Chair positions at Johns Hopkins University is to just rename the post. But doing so would not address the fraught history at the center of the story. In addition to renaming then, Johns Hopkins should redefine the Caroline Donovan chair.

It should become the epicenter of a new, university-wide slavery, institutional memory and reconciliation initiative. The chair, currently empty, should be filled by a professor qualified and willing to teach at least one such relevant course per year. A political scientist might lead a seminar on reparations and distributive justice, a historian might teach on slavery in Maryland or a professor of literature may lead a class on writing historical legacies.

No institutional change can right the wrongs committed by Joseph Donovan or wash away his wife's complicity. Where the slave trade is concerned, there is no real atonement — no recompense that can address the whole injury. Still, there is courage and justice in the effort to recognize historical truth.

It's why public recognition of the university's ties to the slave trade — many of which will likely remain undiscovered — is an institutional necessity. It's why the true Donovan legacy must be acknowledged.

— Jennie Williams is a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University; her dissertation focuses on the coastwise slave trade in the 19th century United States. She wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.