Antero Pietila, author of “The Ghosts Of Johns Hopkins” charts the rise of the influential Baltimore-based university while the city embraced segregation
JAISAL NOOR Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. Johns Hopkins— a renowned institution of higher education in medicine. Its name is synonymous with Baltimore, where it serves as the largest private employer. Its technological and medical breakthroughs routinely make the news, but recently, Hopkins has grabbed headlines for a different reason. It’s found itself the target of protests by community members, students, and its own workers who say it’s harming the very people it’s supposed to serve. They point to Hopkins’s own legacy in a city that remains haunted by inequality, racism, and segregation. Well, joining us in our studio today is a leading expert on these topics, Antero Pietila. He is the author of the recent book, The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City. This new book serves as a companion to his previous book, Not in My Neighborhood, and he also served 35 years with The Baltimore Sun. Thanks so much for joining us.
ANTERO PIETILA Thank you for inviting me.
JAISAL NOOR So let’s start with who Johns Hopkins was and why he decided to fund a hospital and a university, which at the time, his idea at the time— this was in the 19th century— was to create institutions that would serve everybody, including African Americans. So talk about who he was and why he decided to do that.
ANTERO PIETILA Well Johns Hopkins was a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, the Duke from Normandy who overran England in 1066. And so, his folks, they came from Wales in England and there were two brothers who went to Rhode Island. Four other brothers, they came to the Baltimore area and two of them then ended up in today’s Crofton in Anne Arundel County, where they received several hundred acres of tobacco land from the King of England. He was a notable person to begin with, came from a notable family. Now, how did the university and the hospital come about? That’s an interesting story and since we don’t have much material from Hopkins himself, we have to speculate.
My speculation is that the two reasons for all of this bequest, that was the largest given to American higher education in those days, was due to two reasons. Number one was that early in life, he had an ill-fated romance with his first cousin. As a result, he was told not to marry the girl, and so he never married or had children. So, at the end of his life, he had to do something with his money. Now, the second reason for this bequest, and I think that this was the determinant reason really, was that at the age of 37 in 1832, Johns Hopkins contracted cholera. During that time, he was treated at home. He had a midtown mansion here on Saratoga Street. He was treated at home, but he also became very conscious about what people of lesser means, particularly blacks had to go through. And so, as a result of this experience, then somewhat later of when he made a career change and ended his own mercantile businesses to join the B&O Railroad Company— he was the largest individual stockholder there— he then also joined two hospital boards in Baltimore. One of them was today’s Union Memorial Hospital, and the other one was a mental hospital that is now gone that ultimately became the Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville. Spring Grove, in those days, was located at the site that Hopkins then bought for his own hospital.
JAISAL NOOR And so, it was originally conceived as the only hospital that would treat African Americans and whites in the city, and even the university in the medical school initially accepted African American students, but that changed. You chart that history with the history of Baltimore and the segregation of Baltimore. You talk about that history and how the history of Hopkins was shaped by the city and vice versa.
ANTERO PIETILA Now Hopkins, as you said in your intro, is a lightning rod for all kinds of controversies and those controversies, they started with Johns Hopkins the philanthropist. When he announced in 1870 that his hospital would be treating indigents regardless of sex, color, or age, that was a revolutionary statement, particularly because there were no other hospitals that treated people of color. When that announcement was made, his neighbors in East Baltimore, they revolted. They tried to stop the hospital from being created. They said that they were overwhelmed by hospitals. There were four hospitals in that area, including a predecessor of what became today’s Sinai Hospital, and they did not want any more hospitals. They particularly, said a councilman, they did not particularly want a hospital that was treating colored people.
JAISAL NOOR And so, he wasn’t alive when these buildings were completed and the institutions began operation. They initially took black patients and they initially accepted black students, but talk about how that and when that changed, and why that was such a pivotal moment in Baltimore history.
ANTERO PIETILA Well, the hospital accepted black patients apparently on a basis somewhat equal with whites, except that then several—And the hospital was created only after Johns Hopkins had been dead for about two decades. And so, by the time that Hopkins opened, it was not segregated, but segregation soon followed because Baltimore was in the midst of a major racial change. In 1899 was the turning point, when Democrats came back to power in Baltimore under the slogan, “This is a white man’s city.” All this was reflected in the admission policies of the hospital, which continued to treat black patients, but now in separate wards. There was a blood bank at Hopkins and blood was separated according to the races. Now, the university’s story was totally different. The university was started as a German-type research university. And so, in 1877, there was Kelly Miller who was admitted as the first black graduate student, but Hopkins University and hospitals, they were both in terrible financial difficulties in those days. The university doubled its tuition and Kelly Miller no longer could afford it. And so, he went to Howard and from that point on, no further African Americans were admitted to Hopkins until after World War II.
JAISAL NOOR So, we’re talking decades later.
ANTERO PIETILA Yes, decades.
JAISAL NOOR And so, in your book, you do an incredible job of detailing how the leadership of Hopkins, this elite group of people that controlled Hopkins, also played critical roles in Baltimore City in its leadership as well. Talk about how Hopkins— you talk about how it was bankrupt at one time— how it grew in prominence and who some of these key figures were in shaping its history and its rise.
ANTERO PIETILA Well, at first, both the university and the hospital, they were governed by separate boards with lots of overlap. The initial board members were nominated by Hopkins himself. Then afterwards, the connection to Hopkins and his thinking disappeared. And so, what we have, particularly there are two interesting developments in the history of the Hopkins complex. One of them is that the Hopkins President and head of the University Trustees, they played a major role in fostering residential segregation in Baltimore. The other interesting thing is that Hopkins, at the time when many of the Ivy League colleges had anti-Semitic admission policies, Hopkins refrained from that type of bigotry, but Hopkins then started screening Jews out of admission after World War II, during the war and after World War II.
JAISAL NOOR You write a lot about where Hopkins is located in relation to the city, and so in many ways, as I mentioned in my introduction, this book goes to Johns Hopkins, this really follows up on your work in Not in My Neighborhood, where you document that history of blockbusting, redlining, and segregation. For people that don’t know, where is Hopkins physically located? Where their campuses, the main campuses, located in Baltimore? You know, some people call it the “White L” and Hopkins, sort of, reflects that and it’s had an impact on the neighborhoods around it. Talk a little bit about that history and, of course, the government played the biggest role in that. You have a chapter titled “Government Creates Slums” and that was also adjacent to where Hopkins was, across its campuses.
ANTERO PIETILA Hopkins is an interesting story in the sense that, what I do in my book [is] I go through all of the ethnic rotations in those neighborhoods. The pattern was, the area around Hopkins initially was largely German. Then, it became Irish. Then, it became largely Jewish and then, African Americans for various reasons began moving to that area. Today, there is lots of controversy about Hopkins and its remaking of that neighborhood, which is seen as gentrification.
JAISAL NOOR This is East Baltimore.
ANTERO PIETILA This is in East Baltimore and my point in the book is that gentrification, really in terms of Hopkins, is largely a misnomer because those neighborhoods, before the urban changes and racial changes [that] reached the hospital area, those neighborhoods, they were not poor by any means. What I see happening in East Baltimore today instead of gentrification, really is re-gentrification, trying to recreate neighborhoods that are financially solvent and can sustain various neighborhood activities and keep it in good shape.
JAISAL NOOR You, in your book, you write that in 1970 the hospital’s director of planning wrote, “A hostile black community, constantly reminded of past expansion, limits future enlargement of the site. The characteristics of the neighborhood make the area uncongenial for employees, staff, and students.” This was in 1970, after this demographic shift had changed and you also said public housing [was] created around Hopkins.
ANTERO PIETILA Right. There was the highest concentration of public housing in the city of Baltimore around Hopkins due to the changes in the ethnicity and race of the neighborhood. And so, as a result of those changes, the situation, as far as the hospital was concerned, became dicey from their viewpoint. Then, in 1968, there was the riots in Baltimore after Martin Luther King was assassinated. After the riots, the hospital started doing lots of soul-searching and it wondered whether it had any future in East Baltimore at all. There were various plans to move the hospital and the medical school out of East Baltimore altogether. None of that happened, but interestingly, one of the options that Hopkins considered was moving to Columbia, a new city in Howard County. Columbia, in those days, was mostly an idea in the head of its developer, James Rouse. It was not the second largest town in Maryland, as it is today, but the reason why the hospital decided to stay at Broadway was that it felt that if it had gone to Columbia, it would not have had ready access to clinical material, people with whom it could experiment— whereas in East Baltimore, in poorer black East Baltimore, there was lots of clinical material.
JAISAL NOOR And that takes me to my next question, the relationship between Hopkins and the local black residents in East Baltimore, and the relationship of medical institutions in general. You talk about from doctors to robbing graves. You have a section in your book about that, which is really fascinating. You talk about how Hopkins was known as the plantation and, you know, there’s also people like Henrietta Lacks whose genetic material was harvested by Hopkins without her consent as well.
ANTERO PIETILA That’s true. And so, when one of the Hopkins presidents once said that Hopkins is not a good neighbor and all this has come to play in East Baltimore, where people remember the days when the homes of 1,200 black people were demolished in order for Hopkins to construct a dormitory housing 200 white nurses and doctors. So, there is lots of distrust toward Hopkins and in the recent controversies that we [will] soon talk about, all this has come to play. Everything that Hopkins has done in the past, all its crimes have been mentioned— Henrietta Lacks, experiments with lead paint, all kinds of other stuff.
JAISAL NOOR And so, before we move on to that, the next segment, one of the other really fascinating things in your book, you talk about the history of policing in Baltimore. You told me before the interview that you, see some parallels today. We might be under a new age of surveillance, if it’s not already started today, and I think one of the most fascinating things in your book, you talk about how the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party was actually started as part of a COINTELPRO operation, which was run by the FBI, to sort of infiltrate the national chapter, which was based in Chicago and in Oakland.
ANTERO PIETILA Right. And so, what happened was that an Army veteran who had joined the National Security Agency, which had built a new headquarter near Baltimore was sent here to create a Black Panther Party in Baltimore that lasted for about a year and then he disappeared, only to resurface in Canada as an agent provocateur. The reason why he went to Canada was that the Royal Mounted Police did not have any black agents, so the FBI lent him to Canada. But the interesting thing about that kind of surveillance was what I just talked about, was an FBI operation. What also happened at the same time was that there was a very significant penetration of the activist scene in Baltimore by the Baltimore City Police Department. This also had some political implications because a crucial election came in Baltimore in the 1971 mayoral election. What the police department did, it penetrated the campaigns of William Donald Schaefer’s two black opponents, and then fed all that surveillance information to his campaign. At the same time, the police department also had under surveillance many of these aspiring black office seekers, including Joseph Howard, who became the first black judge, Perry Mitchell, the first congressman, and Milton Allen, the first big city prosecutor in any of the American cities.
JAISAL NOOR As you also write in your book, Schaefer had a huge impact on this city, and development, and how this city is run as well. So, we’re going to leave it there for part one of this interview about The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins with Antero Pietila. In part two, we’ll talk about why all this history matters today. Thanks so much for watching.
PAUL JAY The guy that actually founds the Panther Baltimore chapter is a member of the National Security Agency.
EDDIE CONWAY Yes, the Maryland state chapter. Yes, his name was Warren Hart and he worked for the National Security Agency and formulated the apparatus that became the Baltimore Panthers–
PAUL JAY And the idea is that the Panthers magnet to attract militants and you’ll get to know who are the militants.
EDDIE CONWAY And get them locked up, and get them arrested, and some of them actually disappeared. One of our friends actually was murdered as a result of this guy. He sent him out on a mission that was unauthorized and illegal, and he got in an entanglement with the police, and ended up getting killed. I actually investigated that. That’s really what triggered my investigation of him because—
PAUL JAY Him, being Hart.
EDDIE CONWAY Yeah, him being the captain at the time, right? Because it didn’t make any sense what had happened. At the time, all the newspapers were on strike in Baltimore. And so, I went up. We actually had knocked on the doors, and questioned people, and did interviews and whatnot, and discovered that it was just the way this guy got killed, it didn’t make any sense at all. Then, eventually, I went and questioned how, why he was in that area, and what he was doing, and who had sent him. All the information led back to this captain. Then, I started investigating the captain and determined that he wasn’t who he said he was because he didn’t live where he said he was living. He didn’t work where he was supposed to be working. At that point, I learned I was dealing with somebody that was connected and had some kind of police cover up, so I actually reported to California and they sent an investigation team down from New York. During the process of investigating, he fled. He fled Maryland. He fled the country.