Over the past decade, the Peabody Institute has made concerted efforts to reaffirm and bolster our role as a preeminent conservatory that engages with artists and audiences across our increasingly diverse society in meaningful and inclusive ways.

As we chart our collective future, it continues to be important to understand our complex history. Towards that end, when Johns Hopkins University announced in December 2020 that research had found census documents listing the university’s founder, Johns Hopkins, as having enslaved people in his home in Baltimore in the mid-1800s, the Peabody Institute embraced that moment in sync with the university’s commitment to better understanding its history. Peabody, which was founded in 1857 and became a division of JHU in 1986, commissioned independent research into the life and work of merchant banker, philanthropist, and institute founder George Peabody. The primary aim was to investigate any personal relationship George Peabody had to slaveholding and to confirm and better understand possible connections to slavery in his extensive business interests.

In answer to our primary inquiry, the research to date has found no evidence to indicate that George Peabody or anyone in his immediate family owned or held enslaved people. However, there is compelling evidence that his finances were entangled with the slave trade through commerce, business, and banking relationships, and that he built considerable wealth through those relationships. In addition, we have learned that the Peabody Institute’s founding Board of Trustees included at least seventeen business, political, and community leaders who held enslaved individuals at some point, in some instances well into the 1850s.

While the historical record is incomplete and unanswered questions remain, these findings paint a more robust picture of the man known primarily as an early philanthropist who used his wealth to contribute to society here in Maryland, in New England, in the South during Reconstruction, and in England, where he lived much of his life. Although he ultimately sided with the Union during the Civil War, George Peabody took no public position for the abolition of slavery, which during his lifetime was interpreted by noted abolitionists as a de facto endorsement of slavery. As the research report sets forth, George Peabody’s story is of an individual who seemed to approach the war and slavery through an economic lens and acted in his own financial interests; a businessperson operating in the border state of Maryland, and specifically in Baltimore, a center of the slave trade through most of its pre-war history.

With this more robust understanding of how our founder and the Peabody Institute’s early leaders participated in and benefited from the institution of slavery, we recommit ourselves to engaging and further exploring this history through the lens of our ongoing work around diversity and inclusion. Today, we amplify that commitment by establishing a research fellowship to continue studying the legacy of those early connections to slavery and its impact on the Peabody Institute’s history well into the 20th century. What we learn will help us strengthen our work to cultivate and nurture a vibrant learning and working community that is inclusive, diverse, and equitable. In addition, plans are underway for a public exhibit on the Peabody campus to be curated over the next year, focused on George Peabody’s complex legacy as we understand it today.

It is important to note that this work is part of a broader ongoing initiative at Johns Hopkins University to recognize and reckon with hard truths about our collective history and that of our founders. That work continues across the university today. We recognize that as we learn more about our history, members of our community will certainly experience feelings and reactions that deserve to be acknowledged. In this spirit, your feedback and questions are welcomed, and encouraged, using the comment form at peabody.jhu.edu/history. You can also learn more about the ongoing history work at the university at retrospective.jhu.edu.

I look forward to sharing more information about this work as we delve further into our history and, most importantly, continue to build on our commitment to becoming a model of a preeminent, inclusive performing arts institution.


Fred Bronstein