George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Looking ahead, honoring the past

March 5, 2019   /   by Preston Williams

A memorial to honor the enslaved people of George Mason. A building named for trailblazing African American mathematician Katherine Johnson.

Two major campus projects designed to better reflect and symbolize the university’s vision of inclusion were approved by the George Mason University Board of Visitors last week.

Mason will rename a building on the Science and Technology Campus to honor Katherine G. Johnson, a trailblazing African American mathematician who champions civil rights and equal opportunities for women in STEM. And as the next phase of the Enslaved People of George Mason project, the university will build a memorial on the Fairfax Campus that will provide a more thorough perspective of the contradictive life led by the university’s namesake.

Mason President Ángel Cabrera said the two projects support the university’s mission as an innovative and inclusive academic community and enable Mason to “evolve in our symbols to be true to that vision of inclusion.”

“We’re proud to be one of the most diverse universities in the country,” Cabrera said. “That also increases the responsibilities to deliver on our mission, to deliver on our values, to be a space where everybody can thrive regardless of their background. These projects will support and reflect that fundamental aspect of our university.”

Bull Run Hall, the largest building on the SciTech Campus in Manassas, will be named Katherine G. Johnson Hall in recognition of the 100-year-old NASA mathematician who overcame racism and sexism to emerge as an integral contributor to the early success of the U.S. space program. Mason also will create a scholarship in her name.

One of the three main characters portrayed in the 2017 Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures,” Johnson performed the complex calculations and flight path analysis of spacecraft that led to the United States achieving flight during the early years of the space program, including America’s first human space flight, early missions of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon in 1969.

Johnson has received several NASA awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2015, and has NASA facilities named in her honor.

The Enslaved People of George Mason memorial, part of the Core Campus Project in Fairfax, and designed by Perkins + Will, will provide a more complete account of the complicated legacy of George Mason IV, a founding father who championed individual freedom but who also owned slaves.

The memorial, scheduled to be completed in 2021, will honor two of the more than 100 people enslaved at Gunston Hall—a 10-year-old girl named Penny and James, Mason’s manservant. The memorial on Wilkins Plaza will be designed to convey the hidden voices of the enslaved, the traditional voice of George Mason, and a space designed for students and others to reflect and share their own voices.

“The three elements provide a space for us to think about the past, the present, and what it means to engage in difficult dialogue,” said Wendi Manuel-Scott, a professor of history and art history at Mason and director of the Enslaved People of George Mason project. “Our intention here is to give visitors an opportunity to see the fullness of George Mason, the enslaved laborers he held, and their contributions to who we are as a nation.”

In addition, four quotes will be added around the bottom of the George Mason statue to convey his conflicted role in American history.

Manuel-Scott, professor of history and art history Benedict Carton, Fenwick history librarian George Oberle, and three of the five undergraduate students involved in the project (Alexis Bracey, global affairs; Kye Farrow, history; Ayman Fatima, government  and international politics and systems engineering; Elizabeth Perez-Garcia, criminology, law and society; and Farhaj Murshed, applied statistics) made a presentation about the memorial at the BOV meeting last week. The team began its archival research in the spring of 2017.

Wilkins Plaza is an apt home for the memorial and the Mason statue—late Robinson Professor Roger Wilkins was a civil rights leader known for his insightful writing and speaking about the history of race in America. A fountain that also will be part of the memorial will be embedded with a quill and a Wilkins quote: “We have no hope of solving our problems without harnessing the diversity, the energy, and the creativity of all our people.”

In 2016, inspired by Honors College student questions about the enslaved people of Gunston Hall, Carton and Manuel-Scott applied for a grant through the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) to dig into the past and seek to understand the life of the school’s namesake and those enslaved by him at Gunston Hall.  

“One of the things that this project does is confront the full legacy of our namesake in a way that speaks to who we are as Mason, in a way that’s courageous, in a way that exemplifies what we do best as a university,” said Julian Williams, Mason vice president of Compliance, Diversity and Ethics. “And that is to turn student questions into action, into work with faculty members, and to make that into something that’s long-lasting.”