When Wendi Manuel-Scott walks through the Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial, she sees more than an acknowledgement that the namesake of George Mason University was both an American patriot and a slaveowner.
She sees the result of Mason students asserting their voices.
“We want students to feel empowered,” said Manuel-Scott, a professor of history in the School of Integrative Studies and associate director of the Center for Mason Legacies. “We want students to carve out spaces to make our communities more inclusive and sustainable for all.”
That is exactly what happened in 2016 when students, mentored by faculty, delved into the little-known legacy of George Mason IV. The result was the Enslaved Children of George Mason Project, which revealed the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked at Gunston Hall, Mason’s home in Northern Virginia.
That project led to the Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial, which recently opened as the centerpiece of the redesigned Wilkins Plaza on the Fairfax Campus, and is the focal point of how the university is addressing its identity as it relates to a complicated Patriot.
“Courage, debate and truth define this reexamination,” said Benedict Carton, an associate professor of history and an associate director of the Center for Mason Legacies. “Our submerged histories can be recovered. Our unknown histories can speak. Our multi-perspective histories are alive with different understandings of evidence and inquiry.”
The memorial includes panels describing the lives of two of the enslaved at Gunston Hall: Penny, who was gifted by Mason to his daughter, and James, Mason’s personal attendant.
A fountain lined with a pattern of stones symbolizes an African custom practiced at Gunston Hall. Enslaved people used the Gunston Hall site to pray and look to their origins across the sea, Carton said.
The fountain includes a quote from Roger Wilkins, the late African American civil rights leader, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Mason Robinson Professor for whom the plaza is named.
The four quotes added to the base of the George Mason IV statue, which is also part of the memorial, “exemplify four Masons in one,” said Mason historian George Oberle, director of the Center for Mason Legacies.
The quotes highlight the brilliant legal scholar, who penned the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was the basis of our nation’s Bill of Rights; the defender of freedoms for a limited few; the enslaver of Black men, women and children; and the father of nine who provided for his family.
“The memorial is an opportunity to face the fullness of who Mason IV was and who we are as an institution, in the past and present,” Manuel-Scott said. “The memorial gives us an incredible opportunity to reckon with the past and care for those erased by structures of inequality and domination.”
“It is a weighty responsibility,” she said. “An opportunity not to be taken lightly.”