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The ECGM project seeks to reconstruct the 18th-century experiences of enslaved children and adults on the Gunston Hall Plantation. The purpose of our research is to raise awareness that the namesake of George Mason University sought the benefits of slavery and believed that the people he owned were property without free will or basic rights.

At the start of our inquiry we learned that there were few surviving papers of George Mason IV, in comparison to the preserved documents of prominent Virginians like George Washington (1732-1799) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826).[1] Yet we were still able to analyze evidence of Mason’s views of slavery, which he denounced as a “slow Poison . . . daily Contaminating the Minds & Morals of [white] People.”  While the historical record is largely silent on whether he was concerned with the minds and morals of black people, the primary documents exhibited on this site illuminate how the master of Gunston Hall and his family related to racial slavery through dimensions of age, culture, commerce, health, gender, space, death, and law.[2]

We would also like our project to initiate broader discussions about the impact of slavery on institutions of higher education in the United States. George Mason University (GMU) became independent in 1972. Two decades prior it was founded as a branch of the University of Virginia, which was first established by the American president Thomas Jefferson who used bondsmen to construct the halls and classrooms of this famous institution. Although enslaved individuals did not build GMU, as they did the College of William & Mary and Georgetown University, it is troubling that the namesake of our school has a little-known slave-owning past.[3] Was this fact of George Mason's colonial and American life overlooked in the titling of our university? That question has inspired our summer research and spurred further interest in investigating the history of GMU as an institutional product of the Jim Crow era. Indeed, the ECGM team plans to expand its work on this subject by involving more faculty and students over the next several years. Finally, we envision a campus memorial highlighting the contributions, cultures and aspirations of enslaved individuals of Gunston Hall who enabled George Mason IV to become a celebrated father of the Bill of Rights.

The ECGM project was inaugurated in the summer of 2017 by five selected undergraduates: Alexis Bracey, Global Affairs; Kye Farrow, History; Ayman Fatima, Government & International Politics; Elizabeth Perez-Garcia, Criminology, Law & Society; and Farhaj Murshed, Community Health. Each student worked on a specific topic that advanced the overarching goals of the project.

Two  mentors,Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott and Dr. Benedict Carton, launched the research after receiving a generous grant from the GMU Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities & Research.  They are co-directors of the ECGM project, with faculty affiliation in the African & African American Studies Program and Department of History & Art History.

Dr. Benjamin Hurwitz, Department of History and Art History, serves as the assistant director and Omeka Coordinator of the ECGM project. Dr. George D. Oberle, GMU History Librarian, is also an assistant director.  Other faculty partners include Dr. Jennifer Ritterhouse, Dr. Rosemarie Zagarri, and Dr. Spencer Crew of the Department of History and Art History. Finally, the student organization, Honors College Black Ambition, is recognized as a vital creator of the ECGM project.

We conclude with a note on terminology.  ECGM researchers used "enslaved" (individual, person, etc.) instead of "slave" because the people held in bondage in 18th-century Virginia and throughout the period of American slavery embodied more than just the violence they experienced. Put another way, the noun “slave” tends to focus attention on the utterly low status of someone brutalized and rendered socially dead by a violent legal system.  In contrast, the phrase “enslaved man” or “enslaved woman” signals that a person in bondage is still a living being with agency, emotion, idiosyncrasies, and strategies.  The verb “enslaved” also reveals how plantation owners and “slave patrols” (a law-enforcement arm of Mason’s colonial gentry) actively intended to dehumanize thousands of Africans forcibly taken to New World societies.

[1] The extensive papers of Washington and Jefferson have been sourced in scholarly works that helped ECGM researchers place George Mason III (1690-1735) and George Mason IV in the context of colonial Virginia. See, for example: Lorri Glover, Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of American Revolutionaries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

[2] “Virginia Declaration of Rights,” Colonial Williamsburg,  http://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/varights.cfm, accessed July 17, 2017. For a cogent and brief explanation of Mason's evolving attitudes toward the slave trade and institution of slavery, see: Jeff Broadwater, George Mason: Forgotten Founder (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 34-38. 

[3] The link between racial slavery and higher education in the United States is revealed in Craig Wilder's rigorously argued book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).  With regard to this subject, the ECGM team particularly thanks Dr. Allen, Dr. Vinson and Dr. Slade Martin of the Lemon Project (College of William & Mary) for conducting an informative summer seminar at GMU. The trio of Lemon scholars explained the rewards and challenges of sustaining research that uncovers George Mason IV’s slave-holding past.  In this session, crucial topics were explored, for example, how to locate relevant evidence; trace the intertwined legacies of the plantation system  and legal segregation in a college/university/suburban town that celebrates architectural landmarks of the colonial South (Williamsburg and Fairfax, Virginia, respectively); and appreciate the politics informing how academic leaders, local communities, alumni, faculty and students join together to discuss the lasting influences of slavery in higher education.