The research project that started it all

by Jessica Clark

The research project that started it all

This article first appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of the Libraries at Mason magazine.

George Oberle, History Librarian, was invited to provide a library research session for the “Enslaved Children of George Mason” (ECGM) summer research team co-directed by Wendy Manuel-Scott and Benedict Carton of the History and Art History department. This OSCAR USRP project – undertaken by a cross-disciplinary team of five undergraduates: Alexis Bracey, Global Affairs; Kye Farrow, History; Ayman Fatima, Government & International Politics; Elizabeth Perez-Garcia, Criminology, Law & Society; and Farhaj Murshed, Community Health – focused on recovering the hidden stories of people serving our university’s namesake. The ECGM project, which is ongoing after the initial summer term and has taken on a life of its own, seeks to discover the worlds of enslaved African Americans on Mason’s Gunston Hall plantation. 

Though Oberle was initially invited for just one session, the directors and team members soon realized his support was invaluable to their project. Manuel-Scott and Carton both view the expertise Oberle provided as central to their project, and the team was struck by how work with the Mason Libraries leads scholars to other libraries. While the most important center of exploration was the Gunston Hall Library & Archives, the scholars soon found themselves combing through additional archival sources at the Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center, the Library of Congress, and other repositories. In fact, one of the students undertook a visit to the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library at Colonial Williamsburg, in order to gain more insight and seek relevant records. The motto of Colonial Williamsburg -“that the future may learn from the past” – can just as easily apply to ECGM and other work at the Mason libraries. Oberle was asked to collaborate with the group more regularly and named an assistant director for the project.

Said Oberle of his involvement with the project, “This was a great experience for me. It was rewarding to see the student’s enthusiasm, as well as the faculty members’ appreciation of what the University Libraries can bring to the table in the classroom, through research support as well as scholarly project direction. The Libraries is taking a central role in this ongoing work as we continue to study this important issue and rediscover the lost stories of the enslaved children of George Mason.”

As the students explored the personal life of Mason, they found that the values of universal freedoms that he passionately articulated in the Virginia Declaration of Rights (which provided language for the U.S. Bill of Rights) did not extend to the many enslaved people who worked for him – people who helped further the Mason family’s well-being and status within society. The students asked important questions, guided by their own personal research interests – such as public health, music and dance, space design, commerce, and the experience of women (both free and enslaved) – which can be found at the ECGM project website).

The summer may have passed, but the exploration continues. After learning about the project and meeting the students, Mason’s President Ángel Cabrera expressed an interest in visiting the site and learning more about the importance of their historical work to the university, Virginia, and beyond. On November 4, 2017, President Cabrera joined the directors and the original ECGM team for a visit to Gunston Hall. Manuel-Scott said, “A really dynamic piece for all of us on the project was the way in which we reimagined the space of Gunston Hall, the place itself. The students were invested in exploring how the slaves moved around Gunston Hall, instead of focusing on the Mason family’s life there, and how such spaces as the forest might function as a locus for them to gather, cry, weep, celebrate, even love.”

Oberle, who received his PhD from Mason, led an undergraduate honors course during the Spring 2018 semester – HNRS 353: The Legacies of George Mason – which focused on the Mason family from the 17th into the 19th century. The student researchers examined reports and documents related to infanticide trials, Potomac commercial trade, disease records concerning smallpox and yellow fever, manumission, and free blacks purchasing liberty for enslaved individuals.

Discussing this class, Oberle said “Learning from the past is still relevant today. If you could see these students while working, what you would have seen – if you get the right relevant topic – is how it comes alive for students… how important the past is and how understanding the past relates to and affects our present.”

Carton says, “Taking the next steps with this Honors class was crucial to the project. Oberle’s own scholarly work in early American history and his library expertise are important and appreciated by the History department.” Further reflecting on the project as a whole, he says, “George Mason is a prominent figure, with a prominent statue on campus. We want that statue to remain, but we also want students to feel that they have contributed to the narrative of our university’s namesake and that they will continue to search for Mason’s fullness as a human being in his time. That fullness contains the lives of others who made it possible for our namesake to accomplish what he is known for, the ‘others’ in this case being the people without freedom, the people without rights.”

Part of the legacy is the establishment of an initiative housed in the Libraries, a partnership between the Libraries and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) to continue the work. Not only Oberle’s involvement in the project but the Libraries place at the heart of the university and place of records makes it a natural fit. The George Mason University Press, also part of the Libraries, worked with Gunston Hall to update and reprint The Five George Masons: Patriots and Planters of Virginia and Maryland in 2016. The Libraries’ Special Collection Research Center houses a rare late eighteenth century manuscript with hand-written entries by members of George Mason’s family, as well as some letters.

The goal is not to detract but expand the legacy of George Mason in its many avenues. Of potential things that may come to light, Carton notes that “truth and reconciliation lead to healing… in this case, healing through the act of discovery and generating knowledge.”

Manuel-Scott concurs, “Going into this project – for me – was never about belittling the legacy of George Mason but about celebrating the humanity of the enslaved people. It was a way to recognize how we think about the founding fathers and their contribution to freedom, while considering enslaved people’s role in expressing what freedom meant through the ingenious ways they resisted, retained their culture, and created new cultural practices about marriage, religion, and death. They may not have penned documents about freedom but freedom was lived and expressed through their bodies and relationships.”