Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became our national anthem. It’s based on what he saw during the siege of Fort McHenry and included lyrics that threatened death for runaway slaves seeking freedom with the British.

A Georgetown lawyer, he represented enslaved people seeking freedom through the courts in Annapolis but later called emancipation a greater evil than slavery.

His name is honored across Maryland, from schools and a minor league baseball team to the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. When it collapsed last month, some called for keeping the name when a new bridge is built. An Annapolis civil rights group said that would continue to honor a slave owner who demeaned Black people.

Wednesday night, St. John’s College in Annapolis will look at its most complicated graduate as part of a wider reckoning with its history of racism. As much as colleges and universities love to embrace their successful alumni, though, how much credit or blame should the tiny liberal arts college shoulder for its most famous graduate?

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I don’t think institutions should be held responsible for the worst things some of their alumni have, or any of their alumni, have done,” said Nora Demleitner, president of St. John’s. “It’s too much responsibility.”

Key is in the news again, 181 years after his death, because of the bridge. When the container ship Dali crashed into one of its supports on March 26, the bridge collapsed into the Patapsco River, killing six construction workers and largely closing the Port of Baltimore.

Wednesday’s discussion — at the not-ironically named Francis Scott Key Auditorium — was planned long before the tragedy. “The Legacy of Francis Scott Key, Class of 1796” was organized by the College History Task Force as it explored its own legacy.

St. John’s was established in a society where wealth was built on slavery. It continued to be part of the white establishment in Annapolis during Jim Crow segregation.

Adrian Trevisan, a 1984 graduate who sits on the college’s board of directors, was asking about that history in early 2020. When a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd that May, it suddenly seemed very important to find answers.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I called our board chair and said, ‘You know this school in Maryland was founded in 1696 for a bunch of rich white boys,” Trevisan said. “There’s got to be slavery in our history somewhere. And we really need to look at and figure out what it was.”

Being an architectural historian, however, didn’t qualify Trevisan to lead an exploration into centuries of college history. Nor did a ragtag band of students on work-study stipends, whose curriculum is based on discussing great writings of Western civilization, have the skills to plumb boxes of records left behind by obscure figures from the college’s past.

Then COVID shut down the campus for a year. The sleepy effort at reconciliation might have expired if it weren’t for the murder of Henry Davis on Dec. 21, 1906.

Davis was a Black laborer arrested for assaulting a white woman. A mob seized him from the county jail, dragged him through the streets of the city’s largest Black neighborhood, and hanged him from a tree on the banks of College Creek.

Newspaper accounts at the time reported that the mob gathered outside McDowell Hall on campus at about 1 a.m., and students were seen even though the school was on Christmas break.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Math professor B.H. Waddell, who lived in the building, told reporters he was awakened by the noise and came downstairs. Someone knocked the lights out before he could identify anyone and the mob headed for the jail a few hundred yards away.

Thomas Fell, the college president, said he conducted his own investigation and found no evidence of involvement by anyone connected to the college. The criminal probe by a grand jury — led by a judge and prosecutor who were both St. John’s board members — indicted no one.

Certainly, white Annapolis didn’t seem overly concerned by a public murder witnessed by several hundred people.

“Public opinion generally approves the deed, and it is unlikely that anyone will have to pay a penalty for their part in the affair,” a reporter for The Evening Star in Washington, D.C., wrote.

Like St. John’s College’s investigation of its history, the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission got off to a slow start. Created in April 2020 to examine the state’s past, its plans for hearings statewide were delayed by COVID.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

By the time it got to Annapolis in October 2022, Demleitner had been president for less than a year.

“When this was brought to my attention, and the hearings of the commission, we did pretty extensive archival research,” she said. “Based on those, we pieced together a large part of the story. But there are large, open questions.”

What’s not clear — and probably never will be — is the role played by the college, its students and graduates in the murder or its coverup. Were the young men seen in college uniforms St. John’s students? Was the noose used to lynch Davis fashioned from the tennis courts on campus? Did Waddell see anyone, or was he even present that night?

“Is that a real story or a made-up, hopeful story?” Demleitner asked. “We couldn’t confirm either way.”

Since then, the college has used grants to fund outside researchers. Trevisan is nearing the end of his term and wants to see a completed report on racism in the college’s early history released by the end of the year. Researchers have focused on the 12 campus buildings and the men they’re named after. They’ve examined financial records to determine if the college ever owned slaves.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“From what they saw in those financial documents, there was no mention of slaves at all,” Trevisan said.

There is more to a legacy, however, than bricks or ownership.

St. John’s College and its predecessor, King William’s School, were created to educate the young white men of Maryland — the only ones with full citizenship rights — in what were considered shared truths. It and Washington College on the Eastern Shore formed the original University of Maryland.

Key got the message.

By 1836, Key was the District of Columbia attorney general and was prosecuting an abolitionist. A proponent of shipping slaves back to Africa, Key made clear his views on slavery in a courtroom speech.

“The ‘great moral and political evil’ of which I speak, is supposed to be slavery — but is it not plainly the whole colored race? But if I did say this of slavery, as I am quite willing to say it, here and on all fit occasions, do I not also in the same breath speak of emancipation as a far greater evil?”

It stayed that way for a long time. That judge and prosecutor were alumni, as was U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran. A member of the class of 1911, he oversaw medical experiments that infected Black and Hispanic men and women with syphilis — something that was possible only for someone who saw them as lesser.

What St. John’s taught changed in 1937, with the adoption of its Great Books curriculum. When World War II veterans began to enroll and teach after 1946, that is what drew them.

Two years later, the first Black student, Martin Dryer, enrolled. He convinced the college to invite civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois as the commencement speaker in 1952. It was a stunning development for what had been a bastion of white supremacy.

There are lingering complaints about racism at St. John’s. In 2020, the college alumni association apologized for a pattern that seemed both ancient and new.

But maybe the college’s capacity for change is what can be honored in the future, even if the past cannot be forgotten.

“We’ve been talking about namings, renaming things, especially plaques, of course, on campus,” Demleitner said. “And also recognition of the … people who came after World War II who really made a difference and changed race relations at the college.”

“The Legacy of Francis Scott Key, Class of 1793,″ a panel discussion at St. John’s College, will feature Mark Clague, author of “O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’”; Marc Leepson, author of “What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life”; and William Thomas, author of “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War.” It will be moderated by Chanel Johnson, executive director of the Banneker-Douglass Museum. It starts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Francis Scott Key Auditorium at Mellon Hall on campus. The panel is free and will be livestreamed on YouTube. The speakers will offer signed copies of their books after the talk.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

More From The Banner