The "Hard History" of Biography
Daniel Coit Gilman's Missed Opportunities
This morning a negro came to me and said he had understood that no negro could enter Johns Hopkins University. — W.I. Slaughter to Daniel Coit Gilman, June 5, 1885.
Followers of Hard Histories at Hopkins know how heavily our research depends upon primary sources — those materials produced at or near to the events under study. For those with an interest in founder Johns Hopkins, the (yet to be explained) loss of his records has limited the answers we can offer to questions about, for example, his role as an enslaver. Even with the renewed interest in Hopkins’s life, little in the way of new primary evidence has surfaced.
Biographer Michael Benson began his study of JHU’s first president, Daniel Coit Gilman, by way of a very different premise. Evidence of Gilman’s life and work is plentiful, from published sources to his papers which are on deposit with the Special Collections division of the Sheridan Libraries. Benson’s footnotes tell us how he reviewed these materials in an effort to, as his subtitle suggests, illuminate the “birth of the American research university.”
We picked up Benson’s book with questions about the influence of racism and discrmination at the university during Gilman’s years in mind. There, in his opening pages, Benson explains: “One must address the foundational faculty Gilman personally recruited to Baltimore, one of whom, [Basil Lanneau] Gildersleeve, was an unrepentant southern apologist who also happned to be the greatest classicist of his generation. Further, the university’s policies relative to the admission of woman and African American students during Gilman’s tenure, while in keeping with the practices of a southern state like Maryland, are still difficult to explain and impossible to defend (nor should they be defended).”1
At Hard Histories, we have explored how Gilman headed Johns Hopkins in 1887 when likely the only Black student admitted during the university’s first half century plus, Kelly Miller, enrolled. (Stay tuned here for more on Miller’s short time at JHU from lab member Olivia Morse.) In brief, Miller aborted his studies at Johns Hopkins after two years and returned to Washington, DC, where he taught school, continued his graduate studies, and went on to build an eminent career as a social scientist of race and racism as a faculty member and dean at Howard University.2 Gilman may not have block Miller’s admission, but neither did he smooth his way.
To Benson’s findings, here we add one of our findings that is also relevant to understanding the absence of Black students in Gilman’s era. In 1885, W.I. Slaughter wrote to Gilman from Boston, looking to understand the school’s policy: “This morning a negro came to me and said he had understood that no negro could enter Johns Hopkins University — and wanted to know about it. I told him I knew nothing but felt sure there was no such regulation. Since saying that I have thought it might be well if I had some authority on the matter.”3
Slaughter was referring to a “young man” with a “degree (from New Orleans Univ) of A.M.” who had “just finished the course in the School of Theology of the Boston Univ.” He was, Slaughter continued, “in many respets a remarkable young man — a very superior scholar and a very hard student; he is spoken of as the best man in the school here. He is thinking of coming to the Johns Hopkins Univ. for a course in Classical Greek, New testament Greek, and Hebrew.… He will undoubtedly be a leader among his people, among whom he proposes to work.”4
In the archives, we found a draft of Gilman’s reply jotted down on the back of Slaughter’s letter. It went, “I do not know any other reply to make to your note of June 5 than to say that all our regulations as to admission have been stated in the Register of which I send you a copy. I may add, however, that no appointment has yet been made for a teacher of New Test. greek, and to enter the class of Dr. Haupt the candidate must satisfy him of adequate attainments.” Gilman did not impose an absolute bar, and instead suggested the hurdles that lay in this student’s way.
We cannot say that the young man in question ever applied to Johns Hopkins. There is no record that he did. But we do now know who he was. John Wesley Edward Bowen had completed his Bachelor of Divinity degree at Boston University in 1885. And there he remained, receiving his Ph.D. in 1887. A Methodist minister, Bowen later settled in Baltimore where he pastored the Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church and was appointed a professor of chuch history and systematic theology at Morgan College. Bowen went on to briefly teach Hebrew at Howard University where he would have his chance to know Kelly Miller. And like Miller, Bowen was an activist educator, challenging Jim Crow with the founding of the Georgia Equal Rights League and training next generations of leaders as president of Atlanta’s Gammon Theological Seminary.
Bowen’s accomplishments, along with those of Kelly Miller, suggest that Daniel Coit Gilman’s era was one of missed opportunities for Johns Hopkins University. The university might have trained and promoted the careers of highly talented young Black men, but a commitment to doing so was lacking. Activist, legal scholar and historian Mary Frances Berry, when asked about Black “firsts” in higher education once advised that stories of the first to enroll or the first to graduate are merely a starting place. The full story, she advised, must include the many students who, like John W.E. Bowen, were discouraged, rebuffed, or barred, and thus never even applied.
Michael T. Benson, Daniel Coit Gilman and the Birth of the American Research University (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022): xiii. On Kelly Miller see, Julia Boublitz Morgan, “Son of a Slave,” Johns Hopkins Magazine (June 1981): 20-26; and, Ida E. Jones, The Heart of the Race Problem: The Life of Kelly Miller (Littleton, MA: Tapestry Press, 2011).
Benson, Daniel Coit Gilman, 229-34.
W.I. Slaughter to Daniel Coit Gilman, June 5, 1885.
W.I. Slaughter to Daniel Coit Gilman, June 5, 1885.