While schools like Georgetown University, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary have been criticized for their ties to slavery, George Mason University and the man the school is named after have, for the most part, escaped the same level of scrutiny.
Students and faculty members who researched his history urged campus leaders to acknowledge Mason’s past — all of it. He was among one of the state’s largest slaveholders, forcing more than 100 people into slavery over the course of his lifetime, said George Oberle, a history librarian at the university.
In 2021, the university plans to confront the man and the full breadth of his life with a memorial dedicated to the enslaved people whose labor helped Mason build his fortune.
Kye Farrow, 22, one of the students who worked on the project, hopes the research by students and faculty members will spark conversations about freedom in the United States. Americans in recent years have clashed — sometimes, physically — over what to do with schools, statues and other structures that honor Confederate soldiers, slave owners and anti-abolitionists.
A statue of Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee was at the center of violent white supremacist protests that exploded in 2017, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from George Mason University, in Charlottesville.
“I was never one to say we need to change the name of the university because of this,” Farrow said. “I think it’s just something we need to learn from. It’s about embracing the past as opposed to distancing ourselves from it.”
Students started questioning Mason’s past in 2016 after reading the will he wrote for his children in 1773.
“It would list human beings in the same pages as farming instruments,” said Ben Carton, a history professor who participated in the enslaved peoples project. “He bequeathed enslaved people, often by age, grade to his children. He never emancipated a single enslaved individual.”
There are no markers on campus that tell their stories.
Full of contradictions
George Mason University was originally established as a Northern Virginia arm of the University of Virginia. It became an independent institution in 1972.
The University of Virginia has had to come to terms with its past. A commission in 2018 concluded slavery played an integral role in the institution’s founding, according to a report by the school’s President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.
While George Mason University’s founding is not intertwined with slavery in the same way U.Va.’s is, it’s still part of the school’s legacy.
“Our university is named after George Mason because he’s a prominent figure in Virginia history and in American history,” said Ayman Fatima, 21, a student researcher. “None of the work that he did would have been possible if not for the people that he enslaved, without all the work that they did and the suffering that they went through.”
Mason was full of contradictions. In the Virginia Declaration of Rights, he asserted “all men are born equally free and independant [sic], and have certain inherent natural rights.”
Mason opposed the slave trade that violently trafficked human beings between Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. He questioned the institution’s morality.
“He owned over 100 enslaved individuals at a time when our Founding Fathers struggled with this system that our economy is based off of, but is morally wrong,” Farrow said.
But Mason was also concerned that in some Virginia cities and counties, enslaved black people outnumbered whites, Farrow added.
Still, he benefited from the men, women and children who were part of that trade.
His Gunston Hall home was opened to the public in 1952. Staff don’t shy away from Mason’s slaveholding legacy, said Scott Stroh, the executive director.
“It’s really about exploring the contradictions between Mason’s words and his decisions and actions,” Stroh said of the performances, exhibits and signage that explain slavery at the mansion. “It’s something that evokes reactions that run the gamut. Overwhelmingly, it’s something that our visitors are interested in and want to see and explore at Gunston Hall.”
When the memorial opens, it will contain several markers, including a bronze statue of George Mason and silhouettes of Penny and an adult “manservant” named James.
Historians don’t know what Penny or James looked like.
“We only have hints of the people,” said Oberle, the university’s history librarian. “Part of the idea of the silhouettes is to force people to look through this lens and try to imagine yourselves in Penny’s shoes or James’s shoes.”
Penny’s and James’s figures will be carved from large panels inscribed with the names of the men, women and children whom Mason enslaved. Of Mason’s more than 100 slaves, half were under the age of 16.
The memorial was designed by Perkins and Will, an architecture firm based in the District, and it will span about 300 feet in a courtyard on the Fairfax campus. It is part of a larger revitalization effort at the school that includes infrastructure upgrades and new academic buildings.
University officials are trying to raise $500,000 to fund the memorial and an accompanying academic center for students and faculty to share research, said Julian Williams, the school’s vice president of compliance, diversity and ethics.
The structure is designed to be an interactive experience for visitors, Oberle said. There will be openings in the “Penny Panel” and “James Panel” for people to look through and observe the rest of the memorial. Bricks on the ground will instruct people where to stand and what to think about: “Consider how slavery and freedom coexisted in America,” one reads.
A video on the school’s YouTube page provides a virtual tour.
The research about Mason and the people he enslaved is ongoing, Oberle said. But information about Mason is scarce.
“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, they cultivated their papers, they built their papers. They saved them and they entrusted them to a trusted person in their family,” Oberle said. “But George Mason doesn’t have any of that.”
Manuel-Scott credits the student researchers — Alexis Bracey, Elizabeth Perez-Garcia, Farhaj Murshed, Farrow and Fatima — with forcing their school to honor the enslaved. Over the summer of 2017, they unearthed details about Penny, James and dozens of other enslaved people held in captivity by Mason.
“We are in a time where students are compelling us to courageously consider the relationship between the present and the past,” Manuel-Scott said. “I think, for many students, they’ve been introduced to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as slaveholders, but certainly Mason has received a sort of pass.”