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George Mason U. unveils memorial for people enslaved by namesake

A new memorial on George Mason University’s campus in Fairfax, Va., pays tribute to people enslaved by the school’s namesake, including James, whose story is told on a plaque. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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George Mason IV, the namesake of Virginia’s largest public research university, was a prominent figure in the state’s history, known for lending a hand in the creation in the U.S. Constitution.

He was also an enslaver of more than 100 people, a revelation that has led to the creation of a monument on the Fairfax campus. The Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial, dedicated during a Monday ceremony at George Mason University, is at the center of the school’s efforts to reckon with its past.

“In many ways, this memorial is an invitation for people to come and sit in the messiness, the complexity of the past and be comfortable with what makes us uncomfortable,” said Wendi Manuel-Scott, a professor of integrative studies and history, and one of the faculty members whose research helped produce the memorial.

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The memorial is the centerpiece of the campus’s recently renovated Wilkins Plaza, named for Black civil rights leader, Mason professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Roger Wilkins. It spans roughly 300 feet and features several markers, including a fountain and the silhouettes of Penny — an enslaved girl whom Mason gave to his daughter — and Mason’s “personal assistant” named James. The names of other people enslaved by Mason appear throughout the installation.

The memorial also includes a statue of Mason, a longtime campus fixture. Rather than remove Mason, his presence is an integral part of the installation.

“George Mason was a great patriot, but today is not the day to mythologize him. He was an enslaver of people but we are not here today to cancel him,” said Gregory Washington, the university’s president. “We are here to contemplate how a person could believe so passionately in the tenets of the Bill of Rights while simultaneously holding so many souls in enslavement. And we are here to offer this contradiction as a teaching moment to the community and to the nation.”

The memorial is an attempt to embrace the contradictions that existed within many of the Founding Fathers. Mason opposed the slave trade that violently trafficked Africans between Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. He penned the Virginia Declaration of Rights — the foundation for the U.S. Bill of Rights — and asserted that “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights.”

Yet he enslaved more than 100 people at his Gunston Hall plantation and did not free any upon his death, said Manuel-Scott. When two young enslaved men ran away in search of their own freedom, Mason put out wanted ads.

The inspiration for the memorial came in 2017, when five George Mason students wanted to learn more about their school’s namesake. They worked with faculty to unearth the names of the men, women and children forced to work for Mason — half of whom were under the age of 16.

“We focused on deepening and expanding our community’s understanding of George Mason and the people he enslaved,” said Kye Farrow, who worked on the research project before graduating in 2019. “This memorial fulfills the charge of our project. It is designed to place the voices of those enslaved in dialogue with the traditional voice of George Mason.”

Nearby universities in recent years have also contended with the legacy of slavery. In 2018, a commission at the University of Virginia concluded slavery played an integral role in the institution’s founding. And officials at William & Mary have disclosed the school was funded in part by the labor of enslaved Black people who were forced to work in Virginia and Maryland tobacco fields.

At Georgetown University, where two Jesuit priests orchestrated a 19th-century sale of 272 enslaved people to help pay off the school’s debts, students have pushed for reparations, and officials have pledged to support descendants.

Georgetown students renew push for reparations to descendants of enslaved people

Washington said campuses should use their complicated, and often painful, histories as tools for teaching and healing.

“When you look at American history and slavery, you can’t separate it,” Washington said, reflecting on his own lineage as a descendant of American slavery. “We took something that could have been divisive and now it’s something embraced by all.”