Conservatory may have to change name over slave history

Conservatory may have to change name over slave history


norman lebrecht

December 10, 2020

America’s oldest consevatory, the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is wrestling with historic issues of slave ownership. Intensive research has just revealed – shock – that Hopkins was a slave owner. Now they’re looking into George Peabody.

George Washington owned slaves all his life but no-one has yet got around to renaming the capital.

Universities, though, are in the frontline of rewriting history.

Here’s a note from the Peabody dean, Fred Bronstein:

To Members of the Peabody Community:

I am writing to follow up on the message from President Ron Daniels and JHU Medicine leadership sent today. As we now know, recently discovered documents reveal that Johns Hopkins owned and kept enslaved people in his household, at least up through 1850, according to census documents uncovered by university researchers. This very disturbing discovery places the assumed and oft repeated history of Johns Hopkins as an abolitionist in stark contrast to reality, indicating that Mr. Hopkins’ behaviors around race were far more contradictory than had been previously known.

The research which led to this discovery is ongoing, with many questions yet to be answered. In addition to continued efforts to uncover and establish previously unknown facts about Johns Hopkins, a future phase of research is expected to include significant Hopkins-affiliated families such as the Wyman and Garrett families. Accordingly, we have requested that this future phase include research on George Peabody so that we can more fully understand things that we may not know today about Mr. Peabody’s relationships and business dealings. While we have no reason to think that Peabody himself was a slaveholder, in truth, there is no way for us to know without further research what his relationship was to slavery. So, based on this experience with Johns Hopkins, we are committing ourselves to undertake this fact-finding process.

To accomplish this, I have asked our archivist, Matt Testa to work with Sheridan Library researchers and others to lead this process specifically as it pertains to George Peabody.

We already know through the history of the Institute, despite its founding as a community cultural center, that it was not welcoming to Black people for much of that history, as was the case with the field of classical music. As we grapple with the work that we are doing in anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion today, we must learn and understand more about our own history, including the Institute’s historical relationship to communities of color in Baltimore. My hope is that we can build on this initial research around Mr. Peabody, to better understand the history of the Institute that is his namesake.

Of course, the very important work we continue to do in building diversity in our community of faculty, staff and students goes on, as do initiatives around building a culture that welcomes all people and works towards equity and inclusion through honest community conversations, expanding and enriching our curriculum with more diverse creative voices, and other important initiatives.

Our community is pained by this news today. It is impossible to be otherwise. As it pertains to Peabody, we should see this as an opportunity to understand in the most transparent way possible more about our own history, and contextualize that history, so that we may shape a better future.


Fred Bronstein



  • PHF says:

    Fact 1) Every rich person in that time owned a bunch of slaves.
    Fact 2) Every rich person who donated money wanted their name in stuff. Still is like that by the way. Why? I don’t know or care.
    Fact 3) Owning slaves at that time wasn’t illegal or imoral.

    Why is there surprise? Why rename? Or, why putting the name in first place? Maybe it is time to change this from now on, not in retrospective. As NL well said, no one will dare to take down Washington’s name.

    • R. Brite says:

      Your first point is not true. Your second point is debatable; this seems to be a more modern phenomenon (many institutions in the past never named anything after a living person). Your third point is only half true. Many, many people at the time considered it immoral.

      • V. Lind says:

        Hey — Yankee Stadium is still called Yankee Stadium! As far as I know, Les Canadiens still play in the Montreal Forum.

        This judging of people by a modern standard is getting to be an industry rather than a point of principle. The majority of people do not give a damn who things are named after, and they certainly don’t know, when it comes to street names and office buildings. People pass statues year in, year out without registering them, let alone knowing who they represent or what that person was known for. The Whinge Industry is scouring our cities making work for itself with its “investigations” (occasionally followed by destruction, as in the Bristol statue).

        I have no problem with supplementary identifications for anything from a statue to a building, rounding out the picture of someone who has been honoured with a named-after monument of some sort. But the same mentality that is demanding that people must be informed of Colston’s slave investments should also be made to recognise his philanthropic work. People are rarely cut from one cloth. And I know nothing of Johns Hopkins, or Peabody, but I daresay that aside from any association with slavery they also contributed a good deal to the society around them, hence the name of the institutions.

        For the love of God, history happened, and it was made by imperfect men. (Yes, that includes women). No harm at all in acknowledging that, and thank you, BLM and the like, for your contribution to our education. But kindly accept our contribution to yours: that nobody is perfect, and that good deeds often outweigh bad, and that everything should count in the overall assessment of a life. I daresay most BLMers are atheists, but as a Christian, I am aware of the notion that one can make up for sins through good deeds. That nobody is damned to eternal hell if they repent of sin and try to do good. These campaigners may not believe n God (in many cases) but they do not seem to mind adopting the notion of omniscience as well as omnipotence.

        And I scent yet another institution about to bite the bullet and give in to their ludicrous and extremely ungenerous-minded demands. I am fed up with the lot of them.

        • Sisko24 says:

          Why would you believe (as you wrote) ‘most BLM are atheists’? That movement is non-sectarian and non-theological in nature. I’ve never not seen anything from them indicating either belief or disbelief in a deity, God or any other such thing. From where do you draw your conclusion?

          • Peter San Diego says:

            Indeed. The civil rights movement has been led by clergy from long before Martin Luther King to the present day.

            In other respects, I agree with V. Lind, but on a case-by-case basis. How Johns Hopkins got a reputation as a staunch abolitionist, I don’t know (wishful thinking, perhaps?). I believe he took an anti-slavery stand by 1860 (by which time he no longer owned slaves), so one perhaps could argue better late than never, and continue to acknowledge his philanthropy.

            Other cases, like Woodrow Wilson’s, are different: he was a very public segregationist whose policies did much to set back civil rights, and Princeton was right to remove his name from its School of Public and International Affairs. In my opinion, at any rate…

          • Sisko24 says:

            My apologies to you and all who read my comment. I apologize for not thoroughly proofing my own writing and clicking the ‘submit’ button too quickly. In my penultimate sentence, I did not intend to write a double negative, “…never not…” I did intend to write I’ve seen nothing indicating atheist or religious beliefs as being part of the Black Lives Matter agenda or raison d’etre. They do appear to welcome all who would join them in their endeavors which are not sectarian, non-sectarian nor anti-sectarian in origin or impetus.

        • Greg Bottini says:

          Dear Ms. Lind,
          Except for your statement that “I daresay most BLMers are atheists”, which is a breathtakingly unproven assumption, I agree for the most part with the thrust of your argument.
          There HAS been too much “whingeing” (as you Brits like to say) about picayune matters such as changing the names of long-standing institutions, and too little being done to address the root causes of racism, two of those causes being poor education and the radically unequal distribution of wealth and services.
          Perhaps with the new administration, the focus might shift a little bit (I am not deluding myself in thinking that everything will miraculously improve in four years). But maybe some actual hope can shine through.
          Good luck to us all.
          – regards, Greg

          • V. Lind says:

            Yes: in reply to all of you who have taken it up, I seem to have made an unsupported assumption. What I was trying to get at was that their agenda (in this renaming, removing of statues, etc.) was not based upon the embracing principles that I see as (not by any means exclusively) Christian that allow for redemption. The theistic tend to believe in it.

            But thank you for the support — it looks as if the main point I was hoping to make did get across.

            I find the judgmentalism inherent in some of this recent activism disheartening. I wish it were possible for the campaigners to see broader pictures. But perhaps after so long a real oppression, which has by no means stopped, they feel only drastic action gets heard.

          • Michael Pare says:

            “ As far as I know, Les Canadiens still play in the Montreal Forum.” Les Canadiens played their last game in the Forum on March 11, 1996. Their home for the past 24 years has been the Bell Centre (formerly called the Molson Centre).

          • V. Lind says:

            Thanks. Shows you how closely I follow hockey…

          • Greg Bottini says:

            “….perhaps after so long a real oppression, which has by no means stopped, they feel only drastic action gets heard.”
            I could not have put it better myself, dear Ms. Lind.

    • la plus belle voix says:

      You write it was not imoral (sic) to own slaves back then, a classic non sequitur, as if it was some kind of fashion that was fine, then somehow less so.

    • Araragi says:

      W/r/t your third point, morality doesn’t change from period to period based on widely held beliefs. Morality is objective and slavery was no more moral then than it is now. It was just legal (in the South) and more accepted. Even so, there had long been an anti-slavery movement throughout America and Europe, even preceding Hopkins’ time. Hopkins himself was an abolitionist. Which just shows he didn’t have the courage of his own convictions.

  • Rogerio says:

    With all that is going on, this is what part of the political spectrum sees as “important”? America is ripping itself to shreds. So sad (both hands making little OK signs with fingers).

    • E Rand says:

      Thank the left. They’ll leave the USA a howling wasteland- then just move on to their next host.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It’s hard to disagree with this. The motive behind the mentality is “if I can’t have it neither can you”. Didn’t see that coming!!!! They should take their antediluvian grievances and put them where the sun don’t shine.

        • V. Lind says:

          It is bloody hard to see what you can’t disagree with. “If I can’t have it” — what can’t who have?

          To what “antediluvian grievances” can you possibly be referring? Slavery?

    • Rogerio says:

      One of the few things “moving foe-ward” seems to be the Defense budget (700Billion ??!!??!!) In America, everyone moves “foe-ward”. They are just all facing different directions as they progress.

  • Greg says:

    As if changing the name of the school changes anything that happened over 150 years ago. Such woke liberal bullsh*t. Academia in the US has become a highly overpriced disgrace. Pretty much every nation on the planet has shameful aspects to its history. Do other nations find it essential to scrub and rewrite its history as the US does? You can still visit the Colosseum and Auschwitz, both of which are sites where unspeakable horrors took place. But God forbid your name appears on a building or a statue in the US if the woke crowd discovers that you legally (at the time) held slaves or lived in the south. Founding father? Doesn’t matter. Military hero? Doesn’t matter. Past president? Doesn’t matter. Hugely wealthy benefactor who founded a university? Doesn’t matter. Just keep tearing sh*t down and renaming everything and all will be well.

    • Karl says:

      But aren’t black people being traumatized NOW over the sight of institutions named after slavers? I get traumatized every time I walk through the Harvard yard and see the statue of John Harvard. My Scottish ancestors were horribly oppressed by the English.

      • William Safford says:

        You attempted to make a joke out of this.

        But the reality is that former Confederates did exactly as you describe, for exactly that reason.

        -They set up statues of Confederate traitors in public places such as in front of courthouses, state capitols, and such. They did so purposively to reinforce white supremacy and the Lost Cause, and to intimidate Black citizens as part of American apartheid.

        -They insisted on the naming of military institutions for seditionists. In the U.S., a number of U.S. Army bases and other installations are named after Confederate traitors and white supremacists. Only in 2020 is there finally a serious attempt to redress this appalling fact–and the Orange Enemy of the People is threatening to veto the bill that funds the entire U.S. military because he wants to maintain the naming honors given to seditious white supremacists.

        And much more.

        In the case of, say, the naming of a residential house and a school of Princeton University for former Princeton President and former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, that was not done (at least as far as I know) with this kind of white supremacy intimidation in mind. That notwithstanding, Wilson was, in fact, a white supremacist who actively worked against Black people. Is this the sort of symbolism that Princeton wants as we move into the future away from the elevation and celebration of white supremacists and white supremacism? Clearly not.

        As for Peabody? I look forward to learning more about this.

    • Dave says:

      I assume you’re white. That makes it easy. Who cares? If you’re black and are surrounded by tributes to these glorious philanthropists and humanitarians who took time away from beating their slaves, separating them from their families, and having sex with the pretty ones to give money to an institution that promised to immortalize them, the response is different. Why should any of us care if Peabody or Johns Hopkins changes their names? It doesn’t impact anything, accept stoke the fears of sheepish white people afraid that their centuries of supremacy might be challenged.

  • E Rand says:

    Changing the name.. yes! Racism solved! Phew! That was easy!

    Leftism continues on its march to destroy everything it touches. Meanwhile-it builds ….. NOTHING.

    • Sharon says:

      I understand that early in his career Noel Coward said that critics are like Bolshevicks– they tear down but cannot build up

    • William Safford says:

      You make one valid point: the mere renaming of an institution does not end racism.

      The hearts and minds of people also need to change, as well as their attitudes, biases, and prejudices.

      That includes yours.

      That also includes many others who post to the comments section.

  • Greg says:

    “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” – George Orwell, from 1984

    • Peter San Diego says:

      One can argue that the records of Hopkins’s slave ownership, far from being destroyed or falsified, have been rediscovered and revealed.

    • William Safford says:

      Exactly. We are undoing all of the Lost Cause white supremacist rewriting of history. This includes the tearing down of Lost Cause iconography such as Confederate statues, and the removal of the honors of white supremacist leaders, especially those who were honored expressly for their white supremacy.

  • William Goldschmidt says:

    I thought Oberlin was the oldest music conservatory in the US, not Peabody.

    • Sam Magill says:

      Peabody was the first to be organized, in 1857. But because of the civil war it couldn’t open its doors to students until 1868. Officially it is the oldest.

  • MSC says:

    It wasn’t named after Mr. Peabody, who could play virtually any instrument? This has ruined my morning.

  • Bill says:

    OK fine, but what what about stimulus checks or universal healthcare like every other country in the world? The house just overwhelmingly passed a $740bn military budget during a global plague so somehow I’m not convinced the money isn’t there…..

    • Sharon says:

      Unfortunately the military is one of the few ways that large numbers of poor people can make it into the middle class in the US

  • Celia Thaxter says:

    Every time I have gone to a Peabody Orchestra concert,I have noted the composition of the instrumentalists in the orchestra. I would guess that there are more first-rate instrumentalists of color in the orchestra than in any other orchestra in the US.

  • Alan K says:

    I am waiting for when Yale changes its name to “University of West New Haven” to remove that slave holders name from another woke American University. We know virtue signaling is far more valuable than the monetization of the brand “Yale” So I fully expect the new name in the upcoming year! And they should retroactively remove the name “Yale” from all previous degrees and replace them with the above named university And while they are at it remove all Latin words from the degrees. The Romans were slave holders as well

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    When is the USA going to stop its self-immolation? A hideous spectacle of a country in serious decline.

    • Alan K says:

      It is called “cultural suicide” and it is in full swing. Nihilism is in vogue with today’s progressives. They are jacobins. History repeats itself!

    • William Safford says:

      President-Elect Biden taking the oath of office and ascending to the Presidency on January 20, 2021, and thus the demotion of the Orange Enemy of the People to private citizen, will be a major step in reversing the U.S.’s self-immolation and hideous spectacle.

  • Rich C. says:

    Sounds like Mr. Hopkins kept “House Negroes”, more akin to indentured servants. He wasn’t cracking a whip out in the fields, with his slaves in tattered rags and sleeping in dirt floor shacks. I’ll bet his slaves were well fed, in nice clothes and slept in the mansion. Wrong, but put it in perspective.

  • IntBaritone says:

    So much to unpack here.

    1) Do people really care that much about a school’s name that you’re willing to defend that name against this? Pick your battles, this is probably not the right one.

    2) Yes, most people owned slaves. Yes, it was normal. But, also, they knew those were people, not property. It was controversial at the time and they still did it. Two things can be true at once. Stop using faulty logic to defend things in hindsight.

    3) Those complaining about universities caring about social justice should know that they are usually the ones on the forefront of such things. Universities have more educated populations who are more likely to think about such issues. It’s natural for this to be a place where people care about such things. Your average mechanic doesn’t think twice about what Peabody or any other conservatory is called.

    4) Why are people so afraid of change? Let’s say they change the name of Washington DC (or state, I guess). Would it actually matter? How does your life change if Johns Hopkins or Peabody or Oberlin changes its name? Honest question. Because the answer is: it doesn’t. Your life is completely unaffected. And, thus, if you take issue with this, you are simply mad that people are willing to change things today based on the past at all. And, frankly, that seems to be the wrong side of history on which to sit.

    • IntBaritone says:

      Down vote it all you want…the truth is the truth and really doesn’t care about your feelings.

    • Patricia says:

      It is just useless political poppycock. I live in a part of the country where American Indian names abound – cities, counties, schools all have names of Indian tribes. Should we change them as well, to satisfy the mob on the left? The Indians don’t seem to mind – why should anyone else?.

      • IntBaritone says:

        Why would you care if they changed the name. Serious question. Does it affect your life? Will you cry because you can’t call a street the name you used to call it a couple years ago? Seems pretty snowflake-like to me

    • Patricia says:

      History has no sides. Washington and Jefferson made incalculable contributions to this country. To remove their names from every city, town, street, county etc changes nothing. People who did not own slaves did not contribute nearly as much. You can’t define people by only one aspect of their personality. Else who shall ‘scape whipping?

      • William Safford says:

        “People who did not own slaves did not contribute nearly as much.”

        Founding Father and President John Adams, for one, might take issue with that opinion.

        Ditto his cousin Samuel Adams. And John Jay. And Benjamin Franklin. And Thomas Paine. And Alexander Hamilton.

        And many others.

        Many Founding Fathers were abolitionists. Others may not have been fervent abolitionists, but still anti-slavery. Others were gradualists for the abolition of slavery. Others just didn’t own slaves. Others manumitted theirs.

        Then there were the slaveowners.

        Even among them, there are variations. Jefferson wanted to put anti-slavery passages into the Declaration of Independence, but they were cut. However, he owned slaves throughout his life, and there is that whole Sally Hemmings issue….

        Washington owned slaves, and tried to recover escaped slaves. He manumitted several of his slaves in his will, but not those from his wife’s estate, if I remember correctly.

        Other Founding Fathers had no problem with slavery, or were fiercely protective of slavery as an institution.

        “You can’t define people by only one aspect of their personality.”

        True, but that’s a pretty seriously evil aspect.

        That notwithstanding, there is a strong argument to make a distinction between those who are known for something other than their slaveowning, and those who are known primarily for their slaveowning and their defense of their “peculiar institution.”

        By this standard, most Founding Fathers would make the cut, but almost all the Confederate traitors to America would be rightfully canceled.

    • fflambeau says:

      “Yes, most people owned slaves. Yes, it was normal. But, also, they knew those were people, not property.” You do realize this was the slave owner’s rationale to support slavery? In fact and in law, they were property.

      • IntBaritone says:

        Lots of people argue things they know are false (look at the entire republican party right now). Doesn’t mean deep down they don’t know the truth as their souls crumble.

    • E Rand says:

      No. Universities have more indoctrinated people. Universities are the home of junk science critical theories. The average mechanic has more common sense than most faculty in academia. He also makes a better living than most of their graduates.

  • Charlie says:

    Good for Peabody. It’s the 21st century and time we move forward and stop celebrating these sickening people.

    It’s why I won’t listen to Wagner’s music either.

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    “Much ado about nothing”. Someone needs to have the …. to say “live here, now”.

  • Lindsay says:

    Slave ownership should be investigated in context. If the slave owner provided education, good living conditions, a path to freedom, and eventual emancipation to enslaved people who were close relatives and had been with his/her family for generations, that should be part of the story. Jefferson scored on all of these, except he ultimately failed to free his slaves.
    Oh, and he and Washington corresponded about pot.

    • V. Lind says:

      Sorry — I am the constant arguer for “see the whole picture,” but your rose-tinted version of benign slavery rather sticks in my craw. The “context” begins with the fact that some people felt that they OWNED other people, who were chattel, with a market value, not people, deserving ALL the considerations due to another human. The very fact that one person thought he had the right to offer another the PATH to freedom ought to have raised flags in any sincere heart.

  • fflambeau says:

    No one, Norman, ever called George Washington an abolitionist. They did for Hopkins. It makes a huge difference. I do not think a name change achieves much; I’d rather see Peabody do more educational work on the subject and also do minority outreach instead. More scholarships for the deserving poor would be a good start.

  • Justin says:

    “Universities, though, are in the frontline of rewriting history.”

    Actually, they’re not rewriting history, they’re coming to terms with it. To continue to honor someone who should not be honored is a way to ignore history, not remember it.

  • William Safford says:

    “Universities, though, are in the frontline of [rewriting] ACKNOWLEDGING history.”


    • V. Lind says:

      Universities should be exploring history, and that does mean acknowledging it. Rewriting history is for the totalitarian regimes, with their Year Zeros and their removals of Rudolf Nureyev’s image from the halls of the Mariinsky.

      I see promotional photographs for a TV series coming out at Christmas called Bridgerton. It is apparently a Regency sort of Downton Abbey — Georgette Heyer for beginners. It is trumpeting itself as “diversely-cast,” and most of the photos I have seen feature a black couple dressed very much as Regency dandies.

      Are young black people watching this — the uneducated, inexperienced — to think that in Regency England their people moved freely and as welcome and undifferentiated participants in high society? This is a production by Shonda Rhimes, whose ghastly “Scandal” series I saw to much of. If shows like this Bridgerton caper flourish, all they are going to do is rob black people of their REAL stories, of which I think we certainly should see many more, with some sort of fantasy world that never happened. Howzzat for rewriting history? And for the potentially very deleterious effects of it.

      • William Safford says:

        One thing we are doing in the United States is deconstructing and dismantling the very sorts of rewriting and falsifying of history that you adroitly deprecate.

        This is part of that process.

        There is a great deal of resistance to the stripping away of the Confederate and other white supremacist propaganda, as you see from many people who post comments herein.

        As for the TV shows that you mentioned: as I wrote in the comments in another blog post, I’m not familiar with those shows, but I have no objection to the use of nonwhite actors in general. I mentioned a few exceptions elsewhere.

      • IntBaritone says:

        Literally no one is rewriting history. Changing the name of a building or university or city does not rewrite history – those are not history – those are names. History is the study of what those with those names did. Your entire argument is illegitimate because of that. But besides that, studying history includes acknowledging that the bad parts are the bad parts. But then what do you do with it? You make better choices, like not to name buildings after shitty people, or to change them when you realize those people are shitty. It’s why we don’t have Hitler Circus in London. It’s why Genghis Khan DC is not the name of a city in the USA. This is really not that hard to understand, but if you bury your head in the sand, you’ll never get it.

        Nothing is taken away from your life when you change a name of an inanimate object, building, city, or anything else.

        You should really make better arguments. This one holds no water.

        Be Best.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    The solution here is for JHU to host an Africana Studies Department as reparations for what JH did to appease those who need appeasing. At this point, Johns Hopkins University is a brand name. The university is no more tied to Johns Hopkins the man than Harvard is to John Harvard.

  • Gerald Martin says:

    I’d be happy if something was done about Rhodes scholarships. A clarification, at least.