Browse Exhibits (9 total)
The girls and boys owned by George Mason IV occupied a particularly precarious position in 18th-century Virginia. Colonial planters had no qualms about profiting from their youngest laborers. Enslaved children could be sold at any time, Thus, in one stroke of the pen they could lose their mother, father, family, and every community member they had ever known.
Music and dance were important cultural expressions for the enslaved women and men who congregated in woods, swamps, and abandoned outbuildings to participate in ceremonies beyond the gaze of free society. It is not difficult to picture the people owned by George Mason IV conducting their ritual and revelry in the forest surrounding Gunston Hall manor. It is equally possible to imagine that individuals like Dick, a "runaway" from Mason's plantation, first learned to play his drum at these gatherings.
Thomson Mason, the youngest brother of George Mason IV, was a slave dealer. Although it is not certain, George Mason IV may have bought laborers from this sibling, including children who were shipped from Africa to Virginia. The Middle Passage, the journey that took enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean, was undoubtedly a traumatic experience that did not end with arrival in America. The African girls and boys imported to the Chesapeake region had to adjust to a new environment that dehumanized them.
George Mason IV most likely knew that the life of enslaved people was hard. Tutored at a young age by his uncle John Mercer, Mason spent much of his childhood in a private study reading. Mercer gave texts to his bookish nephew, including the latest publications on science and medicine. These works would be absorbed into the Gunston Hall library and bequeathed to subsequent generations. Thus, it is probable that George Mason IV entered adulthood as a man versed in 18th-century ideas of health. Given his body of knowledge, did he care that the workers on his property suffered (bodily and pyschologically) from the abuses of slavery? Did he seek to help or treat them, and did the enslaved people of Gunston Hall try to heal themselves?
Slavery in colonial Virginia depended on laws developed in the seventeenth century, which dictated that every planter fulfill his duty to the workers he owned by offering them basic provisions. This allotment of food was meager. Thus, after enslaved people spent long hours tilling in fields or serving the manor, they would have to expend even more effort to secure the needed calories to keep themselves alive and productive.
The patriarchal system of slavery shaped the lives of women at Gunston Hall, including the wives and daughters of George Mason IV as well as the enslaved mothers and girls who sustained the plantation.
The construction of Gunston Hall was finished in 1759, and George Mason IV lived there until his death in 1792. He was widely consulted about matters of political importance on this property, which could bustle with people. How did the manor house maintain its grandeur while Mason was the father of nine active children, talked with revolutionaries about breaking free of England in the downstairs rooms, and held the mantle of "reluctant statesman” who constantly entertained guests? And there is still little contemporary acknowledgment of the fact that from his home he saw the work of many enslaved people who made Gunston Hall a beacon of American independence.
The burial sites surrounding the red rectangle may contain the graves of enslaved individuals of Gunston Hall, including people who grew up as children on the plantation.
One of the goals of the ECGM project is to reconstruct the experiences of children, women and men owned by George Mason IV. Enslaved individuals of Gunston Hall were particularly affected by 18th-century laws governing liberty. Virginia law-enforcers strictly upheld codes of bondage, a subject that concerned Mason but not because he was against an institution that denied freedom in America. Colonial Fairfax County records reveal that our university namesake, an aspirant law-maker, was uninterested in the legal consequences of slavery, as it pertained to the life outcomes of black people in America.