Press Releases 07.28.2022

Perkins&Will Celebrates Completion of Enslaved Peoples Memorial

Wilkins Plaza honors contradictory history, encourages journey of inquiry, and provides a forum for discovery and understanding while employing sustainable building practices.
Photography by Sahar Coston Hardy

Perkins&Will recently completed the design of a powerful outdoor plaza that honors George Mason University’s namesake, a founding father and slaveholder, and the people he enslaved whose voices and stories have never been heard. Spanning over 1,000 feet and located at the center of the university’s campus, the renovated Wilkins Plaza offers a place that encourages discovery and dialogue, where disparate and contradictory voices are heard for shared understanding. 

The creation of the Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial gives voice to the history of enslaved people on the nearby plantation of the university’s namesake. The memorial reflects George Mason’s contradictory history as both a founding father fighting for liberty while holding 100 people as slaves and offers the space for imagining history yet to be made. Adjacent to the plaza is The Labyrinth and a meditation garden that offers a quiet place for reflection and contemplation.  

“The renovated Wilkins Plaza expresses and reinforces GMU’s values and focus on inquiry and discussion while acknowledging the mixed legacy of our namesake,” said Cathy Pinskey, Capital Programs Director in Facilities at GMU who oversaw the project. “The idea behind the Enslaved Peoples Memorial was to create a dialogue between a historical figure and those who had no voice in a way that wouldn’t villainize but contextualize his legacy and tell the other side of the story.” 

Contradictory History Explored and Shared 

The Enslaved People Memorial emerged from the research of five students who wanted to understand more about George Mason. Collaborating with faculty, they uncovered the names of the people, half of whom were children under 16, who were enslaved at his nearby plantation Gunston Hall. The University made the decision to memorialize both stories, placing the existing statue of Mason at one end to contextualize his legacy. The statue of Mason standing by a table includes at the base quotes about his fight for liberty and the rights of men juxtaposed with a statement from his will bequeathing a 10-year-old enslaved girl, Penny, to his daughter.

At the center of the plaza are two new bronze figures, one depicting Penny and the other his manservant James. Also on the plaza are a large panels bearing the names of 100 known enslaved people at Gunston Hall. The fountain at the center of the memorial is dedicated to civil rights leader Roger Wilkins and features pebbles meant to evoke the shell deposits found underneath slave cabins at Gunston Hall. At the far end of the plaza are large writeable panels where current students can express their ideas, share information and give voice to their thoughts, hope, and aspirations.  

A Landscape of Reflection, History and Renewal 

The landscape spaces were developed with a spectrum of well-being in mind and in conjunction with GMU’s Center for Advancement and Well-Being. With its sinuous walking path, The Labyrinth provides a calming and meditative experience, in contrast to the busy adjacent promenades and plazas of the central campus. The Labyrinth and its gardens, surrounded by grasses and perennials, play an important ecological role in promoting pollinator habitat on the campus. Trees and plants throughout the project are also labeled in support of GMU’s newly-designated arboretum.   

“All of these elements were meant to create an axis of dialogue across the plaza,” said Stephanie Wolfgang, Senior Associate and Senior Landscape Architect at Perkins&Will, who designed the plaza. “The Enslaved People Memorial on Wilkins Plaza is meant to connect campus life and activity as well as the university’s past, present and future.”