Wilkins Plaza on George Mason's Fairfax Campus has undergone a physical makeover, beginning in 2019. The Memorial to the Enslaved People of George Mason is a key part of that work, establishing itself as a space where visitors can consider the paradox that was George Mason. He was a patriot who wrote about liberty and human rights, yet he owned slaves.
On the western side of Wilkins Plaza, directly in front of the Johnson Center, stands the Memorial to the Enslaved People of George Mason. This collection of bronze structures encourages those who visit it to consider another side of George Mason, one that owned and bequeathed human beings to members of his family.
The memorial is comprised of a series of large freestanding interpretive panels and signage which detail the lives of two of Mason’s reported one hundred slaves: Penny, an enslaved child Mason gave to his daughter, and James, Mason’s personal manservant. Between them is Wilkins Fountain, which honors the former Mason faculty member, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and civil rights activist, Roger Wilkins for whom the plaza is named. The fountain bears the following quote from Wilkins: “We have no hope of solving our problems without harnessing the diversity, the energy, and the creativity of all our people.” Stones in the bottom of the fountain are arranged in a pattern resembling shells that were found underneath the slave cabins at Gunston Hall.
The memorial traces its roots to a student and faculty research project conducted during the summer of 2017. Five George Mason University students, all from completely different disciplines, and three members of Mason’s Department of History and Art History began research into the lives of the people enslaved by George Mason IV. Their research took them to the Fairfax County Courthouse Historic Records Center and Gunston Hall, Mason’s plantation home. The project’s goal was to learn more about the lives of the people who were enslaved at Gunston Hall to fully understand the life and beliefs of George Mason.
After the results of the research were shared with the university community, a plan to create a memorial to those enslaved at Gunston Hall was put in motion. The university hired the architectural firm of Perkins + Will to design the memorial, which was installed during the tail-end of the two-year complete reconstruction of Wilkins Plaza from 2019 to 2021.
The memorial was formally dedicated on April 4, 2022. The event, attended by hundreds of members of George Mason University and the local community as well as numerous press outlets, served as the kickoff of a year of events to celebrate Mason's 50th Anniversary as an independent institution. The event featured speakers from the university and the local community, and a ceremony led by Dr. Gabrielle Tayac, an associate professor of Public History and a member of the Piscataway tribe, in which water from the Potomac River was poured into the Wilkins Plaza fountain.
Mason’s iconic statue of George Mason, built over twenty-five years prior to the memorial, plays a key role as part of the memorial. Each of the memorial panels contains a cutout of the Mason Statue that allows a visitor to view it within the cutout. The statue itself was removed during the renovation of the plaza and reinstalled on a new pedestal, which now includes four quotes attributed to Mason which highlight the various aspects of his life: as a legal scholar, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a family man, and a slaveholder.