Over the years it has become evident to me, as an early American history scholar, that there were obvious gaps in the historical record, especially when it came to George Mason IV (1725-1792), our university's namesake. Some called him a forgotten founder, or a reluctant founder, yet his rediscovery in the late twentieth century as a champion of democratic rights is well documented in the scholarly attention paid to him. Here was a man who espoused the ideals of freedom but who was, problematically, a Virginia slaveholder who did not extend the rights he championed to the men, women, and children working on his plantations.
George Mason was hardly alone in his worldview or practices, yet the records did not reflect this. The original Papers of George Mason published in 1970 conveniently left out the questions both myself and others in the field were raising. That in the midst of revolutionary moments towards social and political liberty in the United States, men fought strongly for rights that included denying rights to others is an inescapable fact of our nation's history. How was it that one could open a multi-volume collection of a well-documented man’s intellectual history, turn to the index, and not find one entry for enslaved, slaves, slavery, or other iterations that would indicate his position as a slaveholder?
This significant gap in the story - and this glossing over of those less savory aspects of our nation’s “champions” – drove my research and inspired conversations with faculty colleagues who were noticing the gaps in their own studies. We also found that we were collectively receiving inquiries from our students about who Mason was and why our university bore his name. As I was advising student research queries it became clear that there was a real need to explore what other hidden records in county courthouses and local repositories may have survived to present the fuller picture of the Mason family and their legacies.
One example of telling the fuller story – the Enslaved Children of George Mason (ECGM) project – demonstrated again and again the value of scholarly inquiry at all levels and from a variety of disciplines beyond history. I began reframing the courses in which I taught historical methods to undergraduate students, in the Department of History and Art History and the Honors College, in light of the latest findings. Our student inquiries informed new fieldwork related to statues, memorialization, and the racial and gender reckoning yet to be addressed at our university. Projects extended beyond the era of George Mason and the founders of the early American republic to probing questions about the reach of their legacies, even at places such as our own institution without a direct connection to the history of slave labor.
The amount of work still to be done to uncover our hidden histories and create a more inclusive, comprehensive, and complicated narrative of our American pasts is staggering. As we began to comb the local archives and online finding aids to understand the scope of the extant records with a particular emphasis on Fairfax, we quickly realized that the Mason family was a significant actor in the history of the United States, not only in relation to those early constitutional discussions. The Mason family – with its many branches, holdings, properties, businesses, and descendants – could be used as a lens to explore the legacy of slavery on the early republic through the Civil War era and into the twentieth century (as exemplified by woman suffrage activist, labor activist, and social reformer Lucy Randolph Mason).
The seeds of the Center for Mason Legacies were sown directly in the Enslaved Children of George Mason (ECGM) project. And, the creation of the center is inspired by the many at our university who longed for our campus, community, and country to engage in a more honest dialogue about our nation’s history and the lasting effects of racism and enslavement – a contradiction to the conviction expressed in the ideals of our country’s founders, including George Mason, that all people were “created equally free & independent.”
My colleagues and I at the center are grappling with the complicated legacies of our nation’s founders, those who held such high ideals spoken in a language of universal truths yet fell so very short of living up to their words. The long-term costs that this country pays for these lasting legacies is not merely an academic exercise, as the protests and civil unrest of 2020 have demonstrated. As we uncover forgotten or ignored (and sometimes suppressed) evidence, our work becomes as much about our present moment as it is about our past.
The Center for Mason Legacies offers an institutional home for us to conduct this work, but it is not work that we do alone. We invite you to join us, whether here at Mason (by getting involved or providing support) or in your own communities. I can’t imagine more important work to focus on or a more important time to do this work – to tell the story, to set the record straight.
~George D. Oberle III, PhD, MLS