Digging through historical records found at the 5,500-acre plantation of Gunston Hall in Fairfax County, Va., student researcher Elizabeth Perez-Garcia of George Mason University uncovered the life of an African-American girl named Penny, who was shackled into the chains of slavery in 1796 Virginia. Next to Penny’s records, Garcia found pages documenting the enslaved lives of 100 other African children.
What may have seemed like a normal historical happening at the time soon turned into a daunting realization for Garcia, as she discovered that the Virginia planter whose namesake and legacy carries her university’s pride was the one secretly tied to the workings of institutional slavery and Penny’s fate — George Mason IV.
“People don’t really know the story about George Mason,” Garcia said. “People should have the important conversation of looking back at history when thinking of the Founding Father who advocated for the Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution, but who is also the same person who enslaved people.”
According to Garcia, the project to uncover the complete story of Mason started in 2016 when a semester-long research program at Mason called for five undergraduate students to explore the reality of slaves at Gunston Hall, his family plantation.
Led by history and art history professors Benedict Carton and Wendi-Manuel Scott and librarian George Oberle, each of the five students had a specific task in gathering historical evidence that helped accurately define the individuals who lived in a society of servitude under Mason.
“We wanted a more complete picture of our namesake of George Mason, but more importantly, a visual image of the society in which enslaved people and George Mason lived,” Oberle said. “I was directly involved in helping the students out with their research.”
One of the student researchers, sophomore Farhaj Murshed, was responsible for finding out how enslaved individuals supplemented their meager rations and what medical treatment they received. According to Murshed, there were times when slaves under Mason received better treatment than his own family members.
“George Mason was very conscious when his enslaved population didn’t do so well just because these individuals were responsible for the money-producing crops like tobacco,” Murshed said. “It is interesting to note how health and wellness played a pivotal role back then.”
Meanwhile, Garcia focused on the role that female slaves were given and how they helped contribute to jobs on the plantation.
“It was a bit more difficult to gather information on women because of the low supply of records found at Gunston Hall,” Garcia said. “Women normally stayed out of finances and jobs that men would take part in.”
The research conducted by the student researchers soon led to something bigger: the idea to build a memorial honoring slaves right next to the bronze Mason statue on George Mason University’s Fairfax campus. According to Oberle, a committee composed of the student researchers and faculty created a proposal to show to an architectural board in the Virginia capital of Richmond.
“The memorial is not only there to commemorate the true story of an individual in our history, but to allow anyone who visits our campus to recognize that we, as a Mason community, have come to terms with our past and recognize that our country is a diverse place,” Oberle said.
The student researcher who played a pivotal role in the research and foundation behind the memorial was sophomore Kye Farrow.
“I originally researched the legal matters of how Mason impacted slave communities across Northern Virginia,” Farrow said. “However, when Professor Carton proposed that we build a memorial for the enslaved individuals, much of my research focused on why we needed a memorial.”
According to Farrow, the memorial will feature the slaves Penny, a 10 old girl responsible for household chores, and James, Mason’s personal attendant who accompanied him on journeys to the courthouse in Alexandria and other places.
“We believe that Penny and James best capture how enslaved individuals helped George Mason do the great things he did,” Farrow said. “George Mason, who was living with gout and chronic type pains, had to go to the courthouse frequently and it was James who helped accompany him in his condition. It shows how humanity still existed even in periods of difficulty.”
The slave memorial is still in the fundraising stages, according to Farrow. It will be built by landscape architects Perkins and Will once enough money is raised for construction to begin.
“We hope to have the memorial done by 2021,” Farrow said. “With a project like this, we are hoping to restore the humanity that was lost under the institution of slavery and recognize that George Mason would not be a great man without the help of the enslaved individuals who were by his side the entire time.”