TIE Podcast Preview: Dr. Martha S. Jones on Hard Histories at Hopkins and Committing to Knowledge

Illustration of a globe on a desk with a floating book shelf in the background, alongside text that reads "undertaking hard histories."

Toward Inclusive Excellence is thrilled to welcome back Dr. Martha S. Jones to the TIE Podcast. She recently sat down with Alexia Hudson-Ward to discuss her work on the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project which examines the history of racism, discrimination, and slavery at Johns Hopkins University  and how this has impacted the surrounding communities in Baltimore, particularly Black Baltimoreans. Begun in 2020, the project endeavors to expand beyond traditionally siloed academic venues in order to be more accessible to a wide audience.

Listen to the full conversation below:

TIE Podcast · Dr. Martha S. Jones on Hard Histories at Hopkins and Committing to Knowledge

Dr. Jones is a Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History, and a Professor at the SNF Agora Institute at The Johns Hopkins University. She is a legal and cultural historian whose work examines how Black Americans have shaped the story of American democracy. Dr. Jones previously joined Alexia Hudson-Ward on the TIE Podcast in conversation about her award-winning book Vanguard (2020), about how Black women won the right to vote. That interview also delved into challenges the book was facing from a Louisiana public library board’s effort to ban it in 2021 (which ALA responded to at the time), a topic to which they return here.

In their current conversation, Dr. Jones highlights the contributions of students to the Hard Histories project; the psychological and emotional toll that studying such “hard” histories can take on researchers, touching on her own personal connections to this research; and the importance of this research to both institutions of higher education that undertake them and the communities surrounding them. Dr. Jones concludes by reflecting on her previous interview with TIE with its focus on the threat of book bans and academic censorship, noting how these issues are only becoming more prominent, necessitating that those in higher education remain firm in their commitments to academic freedom for the sake of our democracy.

We hope you’ll enjoy learning more from this deeply insightful interview.

Here is a quick peek inside the episode:

On the inception and objectives of the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project:

“Our project began when Johns Hopkins University and Medicine learned that our founder and namesake Mr. Johns Hopkins had not been the quaker abolitionist that the university had long held him out to have been. Instead, we learned that Mr. Hopkins, in 1840 and 1850, even before the founding of the university and hospital, Mr. Hopkins had held enslaved people in his household. And this revelation, yes, required research expertise that led us as best we could to develop a fuller understanding of those snippets of his story, new snippets that came from the U.S. Census. But it also required a kind of introspection and a self-examination on the part of the university. And so, alongside important work on the part of the university administration, I created the Hard Histories at Hopkins lab that would, yes, look at this sort of originary story, if you will, but would look more broadly … at the history of slavery and racism and discrimination at Johns Hopkins. It really connects with important work that was already ongoing, and that was the consortium that is called Universities Studying Slavery … Part of what was a bit distinct about [Johns Hopkins University] is that we were founded after the Civil War, and so I think, like many institutions, we thought we might have, if you will, escaped or avoided or we weren’t really a part of this circle, but of course it turns out that we are. So, there we are joining a bigger effort and a kind of reckoning with colleges and universities across the country to think about the connections of our founding to slavery.”

On the role of libraries and archives in contributing to this project:

“We have benefitted extraordinarily from archivists and librarians who roll up their sleeves and make sure that students not only have a deep orientation to the archive but have, again, that professional expert companionship in the archive. I’ll say, we started, as many projects have in recent years, during COVID, and the Maryland State Archives digitized things and made them available to us remotely, so that student researchers could, in the course of a semester, produce work.”

On how this project seeks to educate without alienating:

“I loved your phrase educate but not alienate, and this captures one of the challenges that we faced from the beginning. Again, your followers may or may now know, but Johns Hopkins has a long and deeply fraught relationship to the city of Baltimore and in particular to Black Baltimoreans … But for us this meant, first of all, I think, troubling expertise and pulling back the curtain on how we do what we do. Frequently, as scholars we present conclusions, they’re tied up neatly, they’re wrapped up in a package that often looks like a book or article, and we don’t show folks the messy behind the scenes of how we get where we go. So we started with a webinar series where we invited wonderful historians, at the start, people like Dr. Jessica Millward and Dr. Will Thomas who were longstanding historians of slavery in Baltimore and Maryland, to come and not only to talk about their findings but to talk about the process, right, how do you do that work? … It felt important to really lift the hood and show people what we do. And then we confronted this question of how to communicate what we do in a way that feels timely that feels transparent that creates dialogue about the work we’re doing, and so we went on to sponsor a Substack where during the semester once a week we write about what we’re reading, what we’re researching, how we’re making connections to other sorts of work that is circulating, again, creating a space where people can see how we think, how we learn, how we research in real time and not ask folks to wait, even till the end of a semester but really to invite folks to tune in week in and week out and follow us … So, I hope that partly by in a sense stepping away from academic books and articles we begin to speak a language and speak in a style that is less alienating and more accessible.”


Watch the video interview here:


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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.