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Hopkins’ Relationship with Slavery

Elijah Sabin ’18
The last few weeks have revealed, yet again, that our nation is deeply conflicted about its racial history. After a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, devolved into a violent confrontation pitting a mix of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and other far-right groups against counter-protesters, America turned its collective eyes towards the complex issues of free speech, racism, history, and heritage.
While the initial conversation focused on the murder of a young protestor by one of the white supremacists and how President Donald Trump responded to the crisis in Charlottesville, it soon shifted to a debate over how Americans should think about the hundreds of Confederate statues and monuments that dot the United States.

In the wake of these events, how should we think about Edward Hopkins, the namesake and original benefactor of Hopkins Grammar School? Hopkins was a slaveowner, and when he died in 1657, his estate included an unnamed slave. In Hopkins’ will, “the Negar” was inventoried as property just like Hopkins’ clothes and cows. It was with money from this estate that John Davenport (also a slaveowner) founded Hopkins Grammar School with two others in 1660.

Edward Hopkins was a man of his time: a wealthy British businessman and politician who served as one of the Connecticut colony’s first governors. It’s not that surprising that he owned slaves. Many men of Hopkins’ stature, including God-fearing Puritan ministers like Reverend John Davenport, did the same, choosing to buy servants who had been kidnapped from West Africa or one of the Native American tribes in New England, or sold from another colony. 

Of course, many early colonists did not own slaves, and others were abolitionists who advocated against the evil practice. Hopkins and Davenport chose neither of these paths and, instead, decided to actively participate in an economic system that treated other people as property. As Hopkins students in the twenty-first century, especially at a time when many of our elected officials are busy reducing the government’s focus on the plight of minorities in America, we need to think about how we should remember Hopkins School’s racial history. 

In the past few years, the leaders of many prominent universities, including Georgetown, Princeton, and Yale, have struggled to confront the role that slavery and racism have played in the histories of the schools they preside over. At Georgetown, a controversy arose after it was publicized that the Jesuit priests who ran the school in 1838 paid off the faltering university’s debts by selling 272 slaves. At Princeton, student protests demanded that former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from school buildings because of his admiration for the Ku Klux Klan and his advocacy for segregation. And at Yale University, a similar controversy over the name of John C. Calhoun Residential College made national news when the university’s administration decided to preserve the college’s name, despite Calhoun’s role as one of America’s most powerful defenders of slavery and supporters of the Confederacy. The university later reversed its decision after significant backlash.

Edward Hopkins surely was not one of the nation’s leading advocates for slavery, and Hopkins School appears to have profited only indirectly from the sale of an enslaved person. But how much does that really matter? Hopkins clearly believed that he should be allowed to own black people, otherwise he would not have. It is therefore easy to assume that Hopkins was a racist who thought the black race was inferior to the white one. While these transgressions definitely do not require us to change the name of our school, they do deserve robust discussion on our campus.

When Yale University President Peter Salovey announced in April, 2016, that Calhoun College would retain its infamous name, he said, “Ours is a nation that often refuses to face its own history of slavery and racism. Yale is part of that history. We cannot erase American history, but we can confront it, teach it, and learn from it. The decision to retain Calhoun College’s name reflects the importance of this vital educational imperative.” At his rally in Arizona last week, President Trump used a similar rationale to explain his opposition to the removal of Confederate statues and names around the country. Trump claimed, “They are trying to take away our history and our heritage.” Whether or not you agree with Salovey and Trump’s position that a history lesson is a good enough reason to preserve monuments to racists, the main tenet of his argument is that we must remember America’s troubled history with slavery and learn from it.

As far as I know, there is no mention of Hopkins School’s relationship to slavery on our campus. In the history of the school outlined on the wall in the school library, the text does acknowledge that the estate Edward Hopkins left for the establishment of Hopkins School included a human being. 

On the school’s website, furthermore, there is no mention of the fact that when Edward Hopkins established the school for the “breeding up of hopeful youths,” those youths had to have white skin. When we celebrated the 357th year of Hopkins this past June, we did not acknowledge that that figure includes nearly 200 years without a single black graduate. This is only the 160th year that Hopkins has been integrated. While these sound like accusations, I realize that most people on The Hill don’t know these things, and by no fault of their own.

To remedy the dearth of information on campus regarding Hopkins School’s relationship to slavery, Hopkins could attempt to recognize this complicated history with some sort of plaque or addition to the school history posters in Calarco Library. Some people may say that creating a space to remember that Edward Hopkins owned slaves is over the top, silly, and unnecessary. In response, I would argue that what we choose to remember about our school and our nation’s past is extremely important and it is worth our time to ensure that the history we teach and agree on is not whitewashed or incomplete. 

As the recent chaos in Charlottesville showed, racism is alive in America in 2017. But while it is frightening and shocking when it rears its head with such force and audacity as it did at that rally, racism is also insidiously imbedded in our politics all the time.

Attacks on programs for the poor such as food stamps are often tainted with racial resentment, as are calls for ‘law and order’ and the widespread reluctance to redistribute our nation’s wealth in a more equitable manner. In discussions of criminal justice, health care, education, and civil rights policy, it is vital that we consider the suffering and prejudice minority communities endured in the United States for far too long.

Remembering the devastating effects slavery and segregation had on communities of color can help bring much needed perspective to the debate over public policy and to the tone of political rhetoric in the twenty-first century. That is why I hope we can ensure that more members of the Hopkins community know about our school’s complex racial history. Our nation needs to think more about how past discrimination and persecution affect circumstances in today’s America, and we should start doing the same at Hopkins.

Online, I found references to a school song that Hopkins students once recited. I have never heard it in my five years here, so I am assuming it has disappeared. Regardless, the tune reportedly includes lyrics mentioning , In reference to Edward Hopkins’s return to England in the 1650s, it goes as follows: “Then he sailed away his fortune still to find. But he gave a colored gentleman and fourteen hundred pound, For to educate the folk he left behind.”
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