Funding Opportunity

ENSLAVED PEOPLE OF GEORGE MASON MEMORIAL

The “Penny panel,” a lifesize bronze figure panel that is part of the memorial.

“They did not just endure: they lived and created and passed down strength and power and hope and love.” —Roger Wilkins

Funding Goal: $500,000

Progress to date: $10,200
Private funds raised through August 15, 2019

Adding Missing Voices to Mason’s Story

Established as an independent university in 1972, George Mason University proudly bears the name of one of our nation’s founding patriots—the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, precursor to America’s Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

The statue of George Mason IV (1725-1792), a focal point of university identity and campus pride prominently located at the heart of the Fairfax Campus, represents the ideals of liberty that Mason championed. Not far away, in southern Fairfax County, lies Gunston Hall, the Mason family’s home and plantation, now a historic site.

The Mason statue, heroic in aspect, conveys a stirring story, a shining chapter in American history. But another part of George Mason’s story—a darker chapter—remains mostly untold.

  • Undergraduate Research

    Like other wealthy Virginia landowners of his day, George Mason was a slaveowner. More than 100 people were enslaved for decades at Gunston Hall. What are their stories, and how do they inform the complex legacy of Mason the man and founding patriot? In 2017, a small team of undergraduates began to explore this question. Mentored by Mason history professors, and supported by grants from OSCAR (Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research), Mason’s award-winning undergraduate research program, they launched a project entitled the Enslaved Children of George Mason.

    Over the course of a semester and summer, the students delved into primary sources from the era, such as letters, wills, and property records, found in the Gunston Hall archives and elsewhere. Their findings have revealed in compelling detail the lives and culture of African Americans at Gunston Hall, including how enslaved men and women reclaimed their humanity through kinship, rituals, and subtle acts of resistance.

A Different Kind of Memorial

What is the relevance of these stories, this reclaimed knowledge and understanding, for us today, and for George Mason University? Across the country, universities founded in the 17th and 18th centuries are struggling with how to acknowledge the legacy of slavery that helped build the wealth of their institutions. As a place noted for its diversity and for providing access to opportunity for all, George Mason University’s 20th-century origin allows a different path.

The project team has conceived the idea of a physical memorial at the heart of Mason’s campus as a way to ensure that the lives of enslaved people are remembered and honored. Through the memorial and its interpretive material, new generations of students and visitors will be encouraged to figuratively stand in their footsteps while considering the relevance of George Mason, his life, and his ideas to our nation today.

This project presents an opportunity to nurture remembrance through scholarship—to foster a richer dialogue about our institutional namesake and the legacies of slavery in Virginia and beyond. Through history, outreach, and education, the project seeks to broaden the narrative of our university, and encourage discussion about American ideals of equality and freedom.

Transforming Wilkins Plaza

In 2018 the university began its most important construction effort in a generation, the “Core Campus project,” which over the next three years will transform Wilkins Plaza, the visual, physical, and symbolic center of the Fairfax Campus, into a vital crossroads for learning and community gathering. Here the aging Robinson Hall is being replaced by a beautiful new academic building that will be home to the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The plaza was named in 2017 in honor of the late civil rights legend Roger Wilkins, who taught at Mason from 1986 through his retirement in 2007, and wrote compellingly about politics, race, and American democracy. As the place where the two major pedestrian axes of campus intersect, crossed daily by thousands of students, faculty, staff, and visitors, Wilkins Plaza will provide the best possible site for the Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial, as well as the existing iconic George Mason statue.

The landscape architecture of Wilkins Plaza will beautifully feature trees, natural plantings, a fountain, and distinctive stonework. Visually, as our most important gathering point, it will anchor the entire campus, establishing a memorable and distinctive sense of place.

The Memorial

Designed by landscape architects at Perkins+Will in association with a diverse team of Mason faculty, staff, and students, the memorial has three major elements: hidden voice, student voice, and traditional voice. By juxtaposing multiple physical elements, the memorial in effect places the hidden voices of the enslaved in dialogue with the traditional voice of George Mason, while creating a space for students and others to reflect and share their own voices.

Along Wilkins Plaza, the intertwined narratives of two enslaved people (James and Penny), of George Mason himself, and of Roger Wilkins, will be in dialogue. Penny, a 10-year-old girl enslaved at Gunston Hall, and James, the personal manservant to George Mason, are two of the people about whom the ongoing undergraduate research has uncovered the most information.

Aspects of their lives are illustrated in lifesize bronze figure panels set at some distance from the George Mason statue. Nearby is a water pool, a site for quiet contemplation, featuring a quote from Roger Wilkins, and with a circular pattern of stones set on its bottom symbolizing African rituals at Gunston Hall.

Finally, the original statue of George Mason will be improved by placing it upon a raised brick base, and given context by adding four quotes that convey his complex and important role in American history. The sources are the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), Objections to this Constitution of Government (1787), his last will and testament (1773), and a letter to his son John Mason (1789). The base will include a single bronze brick containing an enslaved person’s thumb print, a facsimile of a lost brick uncovered at Gunston Hall plantation.

Project Timeline

  • May 2017

    Research

    Undergraduate student research project begins into history of George Mason as slaveowner.

  • 2018

    Concept

    Concept developed to add a memorial as part of expanded and refurbished Wilkins Plaza.

    2018

  • 2018

    Online Resources

    Online project resources established in collaboration with Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

  • 2019

    Endorsement

    Board of Visitors unanimously endorses memorial. Idea gains widespread student and community support. Memorial design and renderings developed by Perkins+Will with Mason team.

    2019

  • 2020

    Fundraising

    Fundraising to be completed; construction underway.

  • 2021

    Dedication

    Completion of memorial and public dedication ceremony.

    2021

  • 2021 on

    Community

    Research, teaching, and community outreach aspects continue via proposed Mason Legacy Center.

  • 2022

    50th Anniversary

    Completion of Core Campus project and opening of new academic building next to Wilkins Plaza. 50th anniversary of George Mason University celebrated.

    2022

Acknowledgements

The project and memorial concept have been developed by a team led by faculty mentors Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott, associate professor of history, Dr. Benedict Carton, Robert T. Hawkes professor of history, and Dr. George Oberle, Fenwick Library history liaison, specialist in digital humanities, faculty affiliate in history and art history, and an expert on The Papers of George Mason.

Please Contact

Leigh Harrison
University Advancement
George Mason University
703-993-9537
mharri35@gmu.edu

Trishana Bowden
Vice President, University Advancement and Alumni Relations
George Mason University
703-993-8756
tbowden2@gmu.edu