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George Mason University is named for a slave-owning Founding Father. Let's talk about that.

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.
Image: Gregory Washington
Gregory Washington was named eighth president of George Mason University in February.Courtesy University of California-Irvine

With Confederate statues being torn or taken down and racist nicknames being dropped by sports teams, it is a good moment for people of conscience to consider the ways in which we commemorate America’s forefathers, who both created a nation based on the Enlightenment principles of individual liberty and natural rights, and were incapable of rising above the norms of their time and thus supported and profited from the enslavement of other human beings.

In total, 12 of the first 18 U.S. presidents owned enslaved individuals at some point in their lives, and nine had them working at the White House. And a majority of the founders of the United States held people in enslavement, including 41 of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and 25 of the 55 men who wrote the U.S. constitution. George Mason — of whose namesake university in Virginia I am now not only the president but its first Black president — was one of them.

I was named president of George Mason University in February, and had barely started in on the job before I was asked by a reporter: Should George Mason University’s name change?

The question is a legitimate one — and it's worth considering. His contradictory life serves as a constant reminder of our nation’s contradictions, which we must relentlessly address to close the gap between our highest aspirations and our imperfect behavior.

Many people who know of him would describe George Mason as a patriot of the first order: His authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was inspiration for both Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and, eventually, the Bill of Rights, the addendum to the U.S. Constitution that serves as the framework of our rights as Americans.

Yet George Mason also held more than 100 enslaved people when he wrote the documents codifying Americans' right to liberty — and he refused to make provisions for their care or release them from enslavement upon his death.

Should we then now continue to recognize George Mason and other founders as brilliant and devoted patriots? Or should we condemn them for ignoring the basic ideals by which they defined this country?

We should do both, because Mason is the very embodiment of the duality of America, which we celebrate for its insistence on liberty and justice for all, even though it enslaved and segregated millions of its own people for most of its history. (And the founders, who created and united this nation, are and should be seen as fundamentally distinct from the Confederate generals who separated from this great nation and then also took up arms against it.)

We can neither run away from the atrocities committed throughout this nation’s history, nor from the fact that the core principles established by founders like Mason — like fairness, equality and liberty —were also the foundational principles employed by the civil rights and other movements.

At George Mason University, by keeping Mason in our name, we keep both lessons of his life active in our own quests to form a more perfect union — and certainly a better university.

To my tremendous pride and satisfaction, this university began balancing Mason’s lore with his actual life experiences years before my tenure as president began. In 2017 — when no one was looking to or expecting anything of us — our faculty and students undertook the work of revealing the full story of Mason by rediscovering the identities of those people he enslaved. They wanted to help us all remember their names while telling their stories — and fully adding their contributions and enduring beauty to the story of this complicated Founding Father.

By holding up the reality of George Mason’s experience rather than tossing it away, we can step into the complexity of the deeply uncomfortable truth he represents. As a university, we then debate, discuss, research and teach it, all to better understand George Mason as a man, a slave holder, a founder and an American.

The Enslaved Children of George Mason Memorial project is thus emblematic of the character of the university I now lead.

But don’t let us off the hook just yet — because the really hard work of transforming our institution lies ahead. It lies in evaluating and restructuring areas of our university where systems of racism and social inequities quietly took and will, without care, continue to take root, such as hiring and recruitment, curriculum development and university business practices.

I just launched a task force to tackle these inequities — large and small, obvious and subtle — and offer a concrete action plan that we can use to change that which has long needed changing. The task force will develop recommendations for us to implement within the next year, including: how we recruit, educate and support students; how we hire and promote faculty and employees; how we choose the content of our curriculum, and how we teach it; and how we name buildings, plazas and other spaces on campus.

I am not interested in purely symbolic gestures; we are way past rhetoric.

It is time we complete the work begun years ago to transform George Mason University into a national exemplar of anti-racism, to honor the fundamental contributions of our founders while simultaneously denouncing their acts of inhumanity. We can only do that by eliminating current systemic racism that offends the very constitution those founders created.

We can and will transform George Mason University into the living embodiment of the ideals its namesake set forth with his pen, even as he undermined them in his actions. But focusing intently on the name of George Mason doesn't do that.