As America takes steps to come to terms with systemic racism, we are seeing Confederate monuments taken down across the South, along with Christopher Columbus statues in the North and Midwest. There are proposals to rename public schools, streets and military bases named for Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, and questions being raised about memorials that honor Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Universities are facing calls for action as well. James Madison University is changing the names of three buildings that previously honored leaders of the Confederacy. Princeton University has renamed what was the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because of Wilson’s legacy of racism. George Washington University is likely to change the name of its athletic teams, the Colonials.
At our own university, George Mason, new president Gregory Washington wrote in an op-ed that he was asked earlier this year, “Should George Mason University’s name change?”
Washington’s response: “The question is a legitimate one — and it’s worth considering.” He went on to say: “The man for whom my institution is named promoted individual liberties and advocated for the enslavement of humans. It’s a legacy with which we must deal.”
A member of the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the document, Mason found no fault with the institution of slavery, but did write opposing the African slave trade — a perplexing dichotomy.
In part to start addressing issues raised by its namesake, our university in 2017 named a prominent plaza on campus for Roger Wilkins, a professor of history and American culture who was one of George Mason University’s most prominent Black faculty members. He came here after working as a top Justice Department official in the 1960s, later penned Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials about the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post and wrote about his experiences as a Black man who held influential roles in those dramatic times.
The main feature of the plaza is a larger-than-life bronze statue of Mason, created by sculptor Wendy M. Ross. Then-president Ángel Cabrera remarked at the time on the paradox of Mason’s statue being the plaza’s most prominent element, saying, “I can only wonder what Roger and George might have thought if they could take a walk down Wilkins Plaza together and contemplate Mason’s statue. I am pretty sure that, after getting over their initial shock, they would be deeply pleased.”
We are not.
Two years later, the university announced the “Memorial to the Enslaved People of George Mason” to be built on Wilkins Plaza. At the dedication, Cabrera described it as one of two projects to “support the university’s mission as an innovative and inclusive academic community and enable [the university] to evolve in our symbols to be true to that vision of inclusion.” (The second project was a building honoring Katherine Johnson, one of NASA’s “Hidden Figures.”)
The basis for the memorial was an undergraduate class project to understand more about the people held in slavery by Mason. That undertaking also led to ongoing research by students and faculty, Mason’s Legacies.
The memorial itself is engraved with some interpretive text, the names of 73 of the 300 people Mason enslaved and two bronze panels, each with the cutout of a silhouetted slave — designed so that a silhouette of Mason, too, as he appears in his statue, is repeated in each panel.
One panel represents Penny, a child who worked in the house; the other, James, Mason’s “personal attendant.” As noted in a video simulation of the memorial, “Penny’s stance represents her oppressed position within the household,” while “James takes a subtly defiant stance, representing the complexity of survival as an act of resistance for enslaved people.”
The life-size figures are two-dimensional and featureless. Both will be at ground level, while the seven-and-a-half-foot statue of Mason — with his back to his enslaved people — is on a brick pedestal that towers over the plaza and is inscribed with quotations by him.
Washington, the university’s first Black president, has announced a major set of actions and a $5 million initial investment over three years to address racial inequities. “Many reforms at [the university] will require thoughtful consideration over time,” he has said. “Others are obvious, overdue and simply require executive leadership.”
The university should remove the statue of George Mason from Roger Wilkins Plaza. As Wilkins wrote, “The founding slave owners were more than good men; they were great men. But when myth presents them as secular saints, and when an attempt is made to whitewash their ownership of slaves and the deep legacy of racism that they helped to institutionalize, the impulse to pull them and the works of their whole generation off their pedestals becomes exceedingly strong.”
Again, we agree.
“Who better to protect our democracy in the future than the descendants of those enslaved by Mason and other founders?”
Wilkins Plaza was designed by an international architectural firm. The university should commission a Black sculptor to produce a memorial to those whom Mason enslaved, one that presents them as multi-dimensional individuals rather than featureless property. This should be a piece of art, not architecture. Wilkins wrote eloquently about the complex, rich and full lives of the enslaved despite the unimaginable conditions of their lives. Surely there are artists who can find a means to express their stories using something more than two slabs of bronze.
Finally, the university should use a portion of that $5 million for genealogical research to identify the descendants of those enslaved by Mason and offer them, now and into the future, full scholarships to attend the university.
In doing so, President Washington would be heeding Wilkins’s admonition to his students that “the idea of democracy is precious and fragile and that its survival can be guaranteed down through the generations only by a citizenry that is well-informed, alert and active.”
Who better to protect our democracy in the future than the descendants of those enslaved by Mason and other founders?
Tameka Porter received her Ph.D. from George Mason University. Judith A. Wilde is a research professor at George Mason University. James H. Finkelstein is an emeritus professor of public policy at George Mason University.