Told  /  Explainer

Owner? Yes. Enslaver? Certainly.

Another chance to examine the terms we use and why they matter.

A follower recently pointed out that our Hard Histories website uses the term “owner” when referring to Johns Hopkins. As was the case some months back when we looked at the use of “slave” versus “enslaved person,” this gave us the chance to examine how the term “owner” has its own history, one that differed in everyday use, in law, and in scholarship. Today, “owner” soon may be overtaken by the term enslaver when referring to those who enslaved people in early America.

A reminder for those of you new here. Hard Histories at Hopkins launched in 2020 when Johns Hopkins University announced that the US Census recorded enslaved people in the household of its founder and namesake Johns Hopkins. In 1850, the population census recorded one enslaved person, a male between 10 and 24 years. There, Mr. Hopkins was named as head of a household, with unnamed others, including one enslaved person, as its members. In 1850, the census slave schedule recorded four enslaved people, all men ranging in age from 18 to 45. The census forms changed after 1840 such that Mr. Hopkins’ name was recorded as head of a household and also, on a separate form, in a column marked “Name of Slave Owner,” which listed four men by age, color, and sex, though not by name.

For 1850 census administrators, Mr. Hopkins was a slave owner. A closer look puts use of the designation owner in context. “The person in whose family, or on whose plantation, the slave is found to be employed, is to be considered the owner.” These instructions guided census Marshals and Assistant Marshals in their listing of slave owners. Of course, owner had an ordinary meaning in 1850, as it does today. But it was also a term of art. To be designated a slave “owner” on the 1850 US Census was akin to being deemed a person with dominion over the enslaved people in a household.

In 1850, this broad definition of the term owner was consistent with law. In the 1829 case of State v. Mann, North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Thomas Ruffin ruled that the power of those who rented enslaved people was equivalent to those who held them as property by deed. John Mann rented an enslaved woman, Lydia, and later shot her in the back when he tried to escape from his home. Lydia survived, and Ruffin explained that Mann was not guilty of battery because his authority even as someone who rented Lydia was unlimited, infamously declaring, “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” Mann, though he merely rented Lydia, committed no crime when he shot her.3 When it came to dominion over a household’s enslaved people, Ruffin thereby erased distinctions between those who held deeds of ownership and those who rented, borrowed, or otherwise kept enslaved people in their households.