Today, Colleges and Universities named after Founders are trying to reconcile the incredible accomplishments of their namesakes with the harsh realities of their namesake, which often includes enslavement. On a recent campus visit, I saw that George Mason University had set the model on how to achieve this, in my opinion.
I am a double-alumna to George Mason and a proud one at that. Not only did I spend six years at GMU for my Bachelor's and Graduate degrees, but I worked there as well. I am a Patriot, through and through!
While I worked there, I had the privilege of creating the only historical timeline GMU had on campus. It was a 30ft long graphic that I made for the only bar on campus--The Rathskeller. Showcasing GMU's history was essential to me. When I say I created it, I created it. I spent hours developing the graphics, working with various departments on campus for photos and information. Unfortunately, the timeline no longer exists as it was in a building that has since been torn down and rebuilt, but it is something I remain very proud of.
There was, of course, something missing from my timeline, and that was the history behind George Mason, the man, not the University.
Who Was George Mason?
He was a Virginia Plantation Owner who lived from 1725-1792 and enslaved more than 100 people. His home, Gunston Hall is not too far from Mount Vernon.
Author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Virginia Bill of Rights, and Constitution.
Delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
He refused to sign the Constitution in 1787 as it lacked a Bill of Rights.
James Madison-based his Constitutional Bill of Rights on Mason's Virginia Bill of Rights.
George Mason is not well known to those outside of Virginia, but to Virginians, you can see the mark he left both in negative and positive ways.
Quick Facts About George Mason University:
Founded in 1949 as a branch of UVA in Fairfax, VA.
Became an independent university in 1972.
Today GMU has campuses in Fairfax, Prince William, Arlington, and Front Royal.
GMU is ranked as the top Public University in VA for ethnic diversity and 15th Nationwide.
Known as The Patriots, GMU colors are green and gold.
GMU prides itself on its diversity and Mason's achievements towards the inclusion of a Bill of Rights not just in Virginia but for the United States. So the question was not, do we change the name of the University--instead, how do we showcase the complete history of George Mason, the man.
"The purpose of the project was to raise awareness about George Mason IV, the man, the patriot, and the slaveholder," Manuel-Scott said. "Our goal was to focus on expanding our community's understanding of Mason, and to focus on the people he owned and what they thought about freedom."
At the center of the Fairfax Campus stands Mason himself. A statue that all students, faculty, and staff know well and a place that almost all visitors cross as they make their way through campus. This statue is the heart of Mason's story and the perfect to expand on it. The Enslaved People Of Mason Project is a permanent installation consisting of memorial panels and a reflecting pool.
"Memorial panels are dedicated to Penny, an enslaved child given by Mason to his daughter, and James, Mason's personal attendant. A fountain contains stones in a pattern that symbolize an African custom of gathering and prayer. To acknowledge an altar that was constructed next to the Potomac River by the enslaved at Gunston Hall, and to acknowledge that the land on which the university was built was originally inhabited by indigenous people, water from the Potomac River will be poured into the fountain."
The panels also consist of additional names of those enslaved by Mason. Gunston Hall, Mason's home, and now museum has identified many of the enslaved, but sadly some names are lost to history.
"The Enslaved People of George Mason project "shows that Mason is striving to be an exemplar institution in relation to the idea of promoting student inquiry and being open to where that goes and takes us, even if it's not always a happy story," Oberle said."
I hope that society continues to find innovative, factual, and interactive ways to showcase all of America's complex history. As a history nerd, nothing delights me more than uncovering new stories and voices of those before us. I also hope that other colleges, universities, and even historic sites can use GMU's memorial project as inspiration to tell their own complete stories.
To learn more about the project and the source of the quotes I used above, please read: https://www.gmu.edu/news/2022-03/enslaved-people-george-mason-memorial-be-dedicated