Thomas Johnson

Thomas Johnson

Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle School is on Schifferstadt Boulevard in Frederick.

Doug Fossett began with a question: Why does Frederick celebrate a slave owner?

The 54-year-old’s questioning began after watching “Up From the Meadows: A History of Black Americans in Frederick County, Maryland,” a documentary produced by Frederick’s History Shark Productions.

The documentary included details about Thomas Johnson, the first governor of Maryland and a Frederick businessman in the late 18th century.

“It just spoke to me that Frederick was a big slave city in Maryland, one of the biggest ones, and it was just how [Johnson] and his family treated slaves back then,” Fossett said. “And I’m just sitting there thinking to myself, this is a school that I went to with this guy’s name on it. And we still got, today, kids [who are] going there and it’s just unsettling.”

Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle and High schools have been in north Frederick for decades.

Fossett said he graduated from Frederick High School in 1983, but spent his middle school and first two years of high school at the Gov. Thomas Johnson schools. The only time he remembers people in the schools talking about the history of slavery was after “Roots” aired in 1977.

The TV miniseries did not bring up meaningful conversations, but instead incited racial slurs and black students being called “Kunta Kinte” and “Toby,” the names of the story’s main character, he said.

The current lack of acknowledgment of what the school name means was troubling to Fossett.

“It has never come up,” he said. “I’ve never seen it in the newspaper, the Board of Education [wanting] to talk about it, vote about it or bring it up for everyone in the area to look at and learn about.”

Fossett set out to learn more about the Johnson family. Local historians confirmed much of what he had heard. The Johnson family owned slaves, and slavery propelled him and his business to prominence. Johnson and his brothers owned the Catoctin Furnace, one of several forges that were part of their business. The work of creating munitions for the Revolutionary War was no doubt done by slaves, said Elizabeth Comer, a member of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.

“Good luck soft-pedaling that one, because there is no soft pedal,” she said. “How many [were there]? Does it really make any difference? One is too many.”

Johnson owned several dozen slaves, one of the largest slave populations in the county, Comer said. When his slaves ran for their freedom, his company took out advertisements in local newspapers offering bounties for the return of what they considered property.

Local leaders were reluctant to offer thoughts on the school name. The African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society of Frederick County declined to comment. Other people deflected comment back to AARCH or spoke for several minutes without giving a clear answer.

Walking Frederick’s streets yielded a similar result. Students and residents were hesitant.

And it is not as though Frederick has not waded into questions of race and local history before. In March 2017, busts of Johnson and U.S. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, famous for delivering the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision that said slaves were not U.S. citizens, were removed from City Hall after public outrage. The Board of Education passed a rule in 2003 stopping any new school from being named after a person to avoid the kind of problems in the case of Johnson. At present, the board is forming a racial equity committee to examine the ways historic and contemporary racism are blocking students of color from equal opportunities in education.

The unwillingness to weigh in can no longer be pleaded away as a case of ignorance, especially white ignorance. Technology has democratized information, and voices re-examining history are growing. National conversations about removing monuments applauding the Confederacy dominate news cycles. And the re-examinations are happening in real time. In the past weeks, art museums around the world have removed the name of the philanthropic Sackler family after court documents asserted that the family willingly aided and profited from the opioid epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of people.

Instead, the hesitancy here, most pointedly among white residents, is moral timidness. There is no stomach to grapple with the reality of how racism and inequities are endemic in our country.

Facing such an issue would require a sober reckoning of how the modern influence and wealth of whites is the direct result of racism. White families accumulated land and influence from slavery. Families who did not own slaves still benefited for decades, and into today, from the substandard position in which U.S. laws placed black Americans. Facing this challenge would require change and, likely, sacrifice by those who have for decades been free from addressing such issues. The national conversation around reparations is growing, and politicians are calling for a full accounting of slavery’s influence in modern life.

Johnson’s space in the community remains as the state’s first governor and a wealthy local businessman. Today’s generation will learn his name as these line items in history or the name of their school. His slave-owning and racist past is an afterthought, to be delivered only in the form of an explanatory comma, if delivered at all.

The argument that Johnson was simply a man of his time is no more defensible than saying Benedict Arnold’s treason was characteristic of a man of his time under strong British influence, or saying that former Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s war crimes were the result of his being a man of his time as regions of Europe plunged into fascism.

As any conversation around a re-examination of Johnson’s legacy and whether he is fit to be the name of local schools remains a conversation of silent nods and few words, the Albert Einstein quote rings true: Silence is complicity with the status quo.

What remains is an incomplete picture of Johnson’s livelihood in his time. His businesses and political career appear the accomplishments of ingenuity and hard work. Instead, his high standing in society was not the result of grit but by propping himself to prominence upon the backs of enslaved people.

Follow Wyatt Massey on Twitter:

@News4Mass.

(99) comments

JConstantine

Do all of these people who ALL OF A SUDDEN realized, discovered or otherwise became conscious of one factor of someone's life believe that the only reason these busts, statues, names etc are honored is because they were somehow connected to some sort of racist action?

The only reason these people are engaging in this activity is part of a greater movement to purge the US of its history (good, bad or indifferent). They are falling inline with socialist/globalist social thought programming.

Besides, enough students, faculty, administrators and employees of Gov Thomas Johnson HS have lived and experienced parts of their lives there so positively, we are now being assaulted by the left. I do not associate my experience at TJ as racist by any means whatsoever.

dollymommy

My understanding is that Thomas Johnson High School was named such because it sits on land that was originally part of Rose Hill Manor, the home belonging to Thomas Johnson's daughter.
Also, I do not believe that "Roots" did not stir some very serious conversations in this nation when it was broadcast. We certainly discussed it at home, and learned a lot about segregation as it existed when and where my parents were growing up. We have a lot to learn from our nation's history. Sometimes we would rather not remember painful events or episodes, but it doesn't mean they didn't happen. We HAVE to remember so that we can try to make sure they don't happen again.

phydeaux994

Gettysburg won’t be the same without Seminary Ridge and Devils Den!

Burgessdr

We also need to change the name of Frederick Scott Key mall and get rid of Key Parkway and change the name of the Frederick Keys. FSK was a racist and believed blacks were inferior species. His brother in law was Roger Taney and we all know he was a bad bad racist.

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threecents

Gabe[thumbup][thumbup]

threecents

I was not against removing the Taney bust, because it was reasonably seen by some as a celebration of someone who was a symbol of slavery. Thomas Johnson is not in that category - he is not a symbol of slavery. Neither were other slave owners, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Also changing the name of a school that has a rich tradition, like TJ has, is much more traumatic to a community than removing a bust from outside a building. I say leave TJ alone and do something useful. By the way, this was discussed in the FNP during the Taney bust controversy, and as far as I'm concerned it does not need to be revisited every year or so.

rbtdt5

Well said.

public-redux

I agree, three. Or it could be renamed Tee Jay.

rbtdt5

Of all the things this man did, being a slave owner is what people want to highlight.

shiftless88

If you were a slave, or a descendant of a slave, I suppose you would think it was worth highlighting

gabrielshorn2013

I am, and I couldn't care less.

thump1202

What do you believe is more important, talking about historical slavery in the USA or addressing slavery where it still exists today? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_21st_century

public-redux

What makes it impossible to do both?

ButterBean

Are you?

Ystj

I have Jewish ancestors and come from slaves. I don’t mind the name at all. Please stop with the victim mentality

threecents

Yah, I probably would not have known who the first governor of MD was if not for TJ High.

public-redux

I’ve in seven states for at least one year and a couple more for less than a year and I could have told you the names of the governors of any of them until I moved to Frederick and wondered who Thomas Johnson HS was named after.

public-redux

"...could NOT have you ..."

jgrose79

Those who forget and bury history are destined to repeat it. People need to get a thicker skin.

shiftless88

Hey, we don't have any schools named after Lenin or Mussolini yet we do not forget them. Nice try, though.

public-redux

I learned a few years ago that there is a middle school in Kentucky named after a distant relative of mine. I don’t know what horrible thing he did to have a middle school named for him but he is dead to me, which isn’t surprising since he is dead.

pittsmom04

Some people will never be happy and will just whine and be offended by everything. There are too many of the psychotic people in the world now.

educatedsocalledminority

Or maybe you have never experienced discrimination for the color of your skin...

Seren75

Exactly like the ones shooting up schools

educatedsocalledminority

I am disgusted to say that I graduated from this school that was named after a slave owner. Those who think the name should NOT be changed must have never experienced racism in this country. I wouldn't be surprised if those who oppose the name change have ancestors who were slave owners themselves.
After HUNDREDS of years of slavery, It was May 17, 1954 (LESS THAN 100 YEARS AGO) that America officially desegregated.
Please explain to me why it is that the Holocaust happened between 1941-1945 yet we hear more about it in school than the millions of slaves that lost their lives in ON THIS LAND building this nation, being forcefully sent to fight in wars in other countries, and creating wealth for these same slave owners who schools like TJ are named after.
Those who argue that one should simply forget about those things are probably the same ones who call people that look like myself "wetbacks" or tell me to "go back to mexico".


I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.”
— Malcolm X

gabrielshorn2013

And there ar those of us that shake our heads over those that set their hair on fire over the slightest injustice, even if it happened over 250 years ago. There must be some balance. History is history, our history, my history, your history, and no amount of whitewashing will ever cover it up to make it go away. Every colony had slavery. Every original state had slavery, including New England. New Orleans had slavery even before it was a part of the Louisiana Purchase. Many of the " upper class" around this country had "servants" (a.k.a. slaves), including the Boston or Philadelphia "aristocracy" of the time. Shall we attempt to "disappear" every slaveholder that ever lived, despite all of their positive contributions to our country? No! Shall we rename our nation's capital? The state of Washington? Most signers of the Declaration of independence, including our own Charles Carroll of Carrollton? Carroll County? The list goes on and on. Time for the PC to stop and for some folks to grow some skin.

threecents

If you are not a racist, then why are you writing lies about the Holocaust. I guarantee they teach more about slavery than the Holocaust in Maryland public schools. My High School US History teacher barely mentioned the holocaust, and I vividly remember him saying that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust have been over-estimated. He said it was more like 3 million. Later I found that Germany documented nearly every Jew killed - over 6 million of the world's 18 million Jews at the time. I hope nobody limits themselves to what they are taught in public schools or what their leaders are interested in.

thump1202

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

threecents

Thanks Des.

shiftless88

The apologists are out in force today. I would be surprised if most of you accomplished anything in your life because your attitude seems to be "if we cannot fix it perfectly then why even bother trying". Is this a perfect solution for every problem? No. Is this a perfect solution for this problem? Probably not. But is it a better solution than what exists now? Yes. See how easy that is?

rpkrauss

Since most of the people in the area refer to the school simply as “T.J.” I thought, “it would be any easy fix if we can just find some innocuous famous person whose initials are T.J to rename the school after”. I thought of Tommy John and Terri Jackson but they both played for the Yankees that automatically eliminates them. Then I thought of Tom Jones but as a Las Vegas performer I suspect he’d have some Skelton’s in his closet. My list ended with Thomas Jefferson who was possibly a bigger slave owner than Thomas Johnson. So now I’m thinking lets go with the NYC approach and just give every school a number (as long as it’s not 13).

rpkrauss

Many apologies to all I somehow got it in my head that Reggie Jackson was Teri Jackson. Where that came from I do not know.

threecents

Still very funny.[thumbup]

public-redux

I was wondering who this famous Teri Jackson was. Thanks for clarifying.

Burgessdr

Why is there a statute of John Hanson at the courthouse? He owned 100+ slaves.

shiftless88

Good question. Who is he, anyway? Why do statues need to stand forever? Let us celebrate many, not a few.

thump1202

Let's tear down all of our museums and the mall area in DC while we're at it, who needs the past we want a woke future!

ButterBean

Presumably you’re kidding.

islandcuban

What an inspiration ! What courage !
Thanks for writing this in a form that addressed issues from so many sides

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sdm817

[thumbup]

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threecents

Yup, doesn't the MD state flag has Confederate origins?

gabrielshorn2013

Yep. The red and white portions, or the Crossland banner, was used by the secessionists.

TINAE

Silence is complicity with the STATUS QUO!

mdcommuter

Or perhaps perceived silence is actually censorship, right FNP?

ABQ2013

I agree with the conclusions in this piece, but why is it labeled “School Notes”? It’s an opinion piece. Did this run on the opinion page in the print edition? I hope so. Journalism 101...

Dwasserba

I watched a documentary last week about black history in N Carolina. The Confederate Daughters became a strong force starting there - eventually becoming 30,000 members in chapters all over the South. Their interest in treating Confederate soldiers as heroes and Civil War history as having a just case led to influencing textbook content for children and many many statues where the chapters were. Children grew up learning about their proud Confederate heritage and it influenced thinking through generations, perhaps into present day. I am from Pennsylvania, but even I had a great uncle who was a performer in a famous traveling minstrel show. I had seen the postcard advertising the troupe in blackface among family memorabilia and my eyebrows about flew off. This person was rarely spoken of in the family, signalling a level of discomfort, and I'm guessing that is not because in his later years he was a reformatory guard who died sitting under a tree (which was the passed down information on him.) The scope of disrespect toward black people as detailed in the documentary is mindblowing and insidious and likely influenced many people who are not consciously aware of any prejudice at all. There would be a lot to re-name. Plaques countering the presence of monuments and buildings would litter parks and public spaces yet many are an insult just by their existence. The dilemma is terrible.

sevenstones1000

These are good conversations to have. Slavery is a terrible stain on the founding and the early history of this nation. The continued legal oppression of US citizens by a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, and “whites only” neighborhoods, mortgages, job opportunities, schools, churches, federal benefits, and public and private institutions is shameful.

How do we make this better? Ignoring it and announcing “it’s all over now” does not address the foundation of 400 years that still poisons American society today. Inconvenient conversation, but necessary. White people need to listen more and talk less.

aco1

This is a front-page editorial. Nothing more.

ButterBean

Agree 100%.

shiftless88

Why are people so resistant to change? Can't we agree that this is offensive to some and seek a simple alternative? How about South Mountain High?

thump1202

Some people will find offense with literally anything. These people don't need to be taken seriously they need to accept that the world doesn't rotate around them and the rest of us need to cease enabling their foolishness. Feeling good isn't a right and anyone who is well fed and idle enough to work themselves into a frenzy over something like this needs to find something productive to be passionate about in their life, so they can have the sort of impact on the region or the country that those we made statues for did.

shiftless88

You mean like the people working themselves into a frenzy because a statue is removed? Or a cross?

thump1202

I have yet to hear of anyone taking violent action to defend these objects, have you? Plenty of cases of violent mobs tearing them down. That's what I would consider a frenzy, especially since none of these mob members could say why the monument was built in the first place. It's unfortunate they are taught to hate and destroy history instead of learning the context of the times and leaving it in the past to educate those who come after.

shiftless88

So why don't we have Benedict Arnold High School? Or King George Elementary?

thump1202

They didn't contribute anything useful to our society. You're stating that we need to focus on one aspect of wealthy individuals' lives at a stage in history over any accomplishments they made otherwise, because it makes people who never experienced that stage of our history uncomfortable. If you really want to help these people, mentor them and teach them how to rise in our society. Here's a hint: teaching them that they have no chance due to racism isn't going to help.

gabrielshorn2013

Shiftless: "So why don't we have Benedict Arnold High School? Or King George Elementary?"

That's a simple question shiftless. Arnold betrayed those fighting for independence from King George. Or was that merely a rhetorical question?

joelp77440

If you use the phrase, "offensive to some," then that leaves everything on the table.

shiftless88

Are you African American? Where you families held as slaves in this country? Many people here, who have standing to speak on this topic, take offense. This isn't forcing anything, it is asking. I think it is a reasonable request. What reasons are there for sticking with this name other than sheer stubbornness?

shiftless88

User is apparently unaware of rampant institutional racism in this country. Which is a pity.

thump1202

The only institutional racism I'm aware of is discrimination against Asian Americans in University admissions and STEM fields, especially the tech sector. I completely support ending this practice. Can you name any specific cases of institutional racism?

thump1202

Oh "Driving while black" is another issue I've heard from people in all social classes, I would also support doing something about that, though I'm at a loss how it could be effectively dealt with.

matthewboh

Thump - you're not a woke white guy - yet. Keep trying!

thump1202

It's impossible for me to become a woke white guy, my ethnic background makes it impossible.

shiftless88

thump you should educate yourself. Look into things like systemic poverty that perpetuates, inability to get home loans, difficulties in hiring and so on. If you do not think there is systemic racism here then you are just ignorant.

thump1202

Why would I educate myself on excuses for being unsuccessful in a country with equal rights and a plethora of assistance programs? Systemic poverty is a social class issue stemming from the destruction of the family and the rise of the welfare state, this is not a racial issue. Inability to get home loans, another class issue. If you can't afford it you shouldn't be qualified, period, try to force it you get Barney Frank and the 05-07 recession. Difficulties in hiring, you seriously find that to be a racist issue today when unemployment among minorities is the lowest it's ever been in history? I agree that there were historical issues there, but these are individual and tend to be about internal "woke" MSM outlets and "woke" large corporations, such as this story: https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/cbs-has-a-white-problem-whitney-davis-explains-decision-1203194484/

User1

Oh no! Another tribute to the “South”. See what I mean. Something is going to trigger someone no matter what. Just go back to PS #1, #2, #3 etc. let’s burn down Thomas Jefferson’s home or the Lee-Custis home at Arlington cemetery. You don’t learn by erasing the past’s history. If you do it will repeat itself. And you sure done rename a white anything with the name of another minority.

sevenstones1000

TJ is not on South Mountain. How about North Frederick High.

walter3rd

TMJS can be renamed Spring Ridge Middle School

jwhamann

will have blended in to light beige skin color.

jwhamann

Give it a couple hundred years. All races w

Burgessdr

This column is nonsense. Comparing Thomas Johnson to Mussolini is outrageous.

shiftless88

Okay, let's compare him to a sadist who possessed and owned people, forced them to fulfill his wishes and do his work while beating them on occasion. We just put two parents into jail for life for doing less than that.

thump1202

Your source on that information?

shiftless88

Source on what? That he owned slaves? That they did his bidding? Since people do not do so willingly or just because you asked them, I would speculate that they were forced and almost certainly beaten. Did you read the bit about his efforts to secure them when they ran off? You think they ran off because he fed them truffles in bed while massaging their feat?

threecents

Shiftless, I think Thump was referring mostly to the beating part. We would like your reference to TJ beating his slaves - or doing anything to his slaves. I think specific information like could change peoples' minds.

walter3rd

“It just spoke to me that Frederick was a big slave city in Maryland, one of the biggest ones,"....alrighty then, next up we need to rename Frederick. And Catoctin Furnace after that.

walter3rd

Is this an article or an op-ed, because it's clear what side of this the author takes.

Dwasserba

[thumbup]walter I was thinking this with my background in *high school* journalism...the first part catching my eye, "Instead, the hesitancy here, most pointedly among white residents, is moral timidness..." which, and I'm not disagreeing, is an opinion. It could be from ignorance of the facts. Or a personality trait like shyness or unwillingness to speak to strangers or... and then we did get to the paragraph about Benedict Arnold etc. Wow. Again, not disagreeing about the egregiousness of the past. My first reaction was, I don't feel "hesitant." Just change it. Do it. No long drawn out fight please. This was Johnson property but too bad. Lots of other candidates. Did Hanson own slaves?

Comment deleted.
marinick1

[thumbup][beam]

thump1202

Yes we'll solve racism by inventing reasons why everything and everyone is motivated primarily by racist thoughts and how our historical icons are bastions of oppression despite creating the freest society in the world's history. MLK would be considered an alt right white nationalist by today's standards, absolutely shameful. Every American ought to be thankful they live in the world's greatest country or take a one way ticket to one they believe is better. They'll see how much tolerance the rest of the world has for the crying that is celebrated by certain factions here.

LAR1

50 percent of the population has been enslaved since people walked on the earth, and continue to be enslaved in many ways. I am talking about the treatment of women. Remember the founding FATHERS did not give women the right to vote. So should we rename everything named after a man? Should we remove every statue of a man? I think not. We must accept history and use it as an example of what not to be as we hopefully move forward to fairness.

KMRD1

If his statue was removed from in front of City Hall, the name of the school should change. Right Donna K???

rmaghan1

Here we go again, people looking for reasons to be offended. I’m sure every older generation criticizes the next and either the world has gone mad or I’m at that stage in life. American history included slavery, it’s a fact. Find something else to be offended about, better yet direct your energy and talent into something promising and intuitive instead of this nonsense.

thump1202

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

marinick1

[thumbup]

jwhamann

Rename it a non-controversial name like Fluffy Kitty Kat HS or Pink Cotton Candy HS.

Comment deleted.
morel hunter

Why not?

fnpzwack

Amerigo Vespucci was involved in the slave trade. I guess we are going to have to rename the entire country. Divided States of Spineless Pu**ies would be more accurate.

sdm817

That would be accurate.

Vsummer

Issues like this are an absolute distraction from the real problems we face. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were also slave owners - this is a slippery slope. We can not remove the historical context these men were living in. Just like we can’t punish every seventy something business man for “sexual harassment” because of th context they were living in. If liberals want to try and understand why we have President Trump - why he appeals to so many - it’s because of stories like this. People are sick of being made to feel bad for things that have happened hundreds of years ago.... especially when there are real issues that exist that impact every one of us.

nbouqu1

[thumbup]

BunnyLou

[thumbup]

threecents

Vsummer, I was about to give you a [thumbup] until you tried to justify voting for Trump. Sorry, excuse not excepted. Not even close.

dcmetro

Stop naming public buildings after people. You can dig some dirt up on just about anybody past or present. I'm not sure what will be decided upon in regard to the naming of the school, but since it has leaned toward a racial issue, it should be understood that slavery was an integral part of the history of the entire world during those times. People of all racial and ethnic backgrounds were subject to slavery in various world regions and it was considered acceptable. The last country to abolish slavery was the African country of Mauritania in 1981. Hopefully this can put an end to such practices although it still exists in various formats today. If they had called the school Market Street High School when it was built this discussion would not have to be held.

jamesnee

Changing History does not get rid of what happened: it makes it even more difficult to understand.......well......anything. We need to face, head on, the problems of this current day. I must say, because so many of the elect are deceived, that the number one problem America has is the current President. He was not qualified to lead, he won by a bad twist of fate AND A CONSPIRACY TO OVERTHROW THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT, he lies continually, while at the same time setting a bad example of every decency. The record shows that in the thirty years up to 2016 election he litigated a new event once every three days: that out litigates any attorney or anyone else for that matter. It is not a trait of his to share nor get along. I reiterate, let's fix the major problem of the day and affect time going forward instead of time going backward. This current situation is most critical. Also, beware the near term changes in real estate evaluations. Monkeying with these values will result in the loss of America in its entirety.

Comment deleted.
jamesnee

It took eight + years to correct the last Republican financial raping. America will not recover this time. They have already gone for the kill as they are ready to inflate real estate (against what?) into imaginary value. The economy will collapse and you can thank a Republican. I am registered as Independent. If everyone did we would be a Nation of more integrity.

Comment deleted.
BunnyLou

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

niceund

Frederick was a civil war town. There are names everywhere that date back to the Civil War and before. Although slavery was abhorrent, it was a fact of life in those days. Changing the names of everything related to it will not erase it or help any problems of today. By the way, Frederick was supposedly named after Frederick Calvert and should probably also be changed. He was reportedly charged with rape, murder and having a harem. He supposedly had eight mistresses and "illegitimate" children. The state flag honors him. What do we do about that?

jamesnee

Keeping it real !

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