Mason students documenting the history of Black life at Mason and in the local community

historical photos in a row

As part of an effort to research and record local history, George Mason University graduate and undergraduate students, along with faculty, have begun documenting Black students who attended Mason and the Black communities that once existed in Fairfax County.

This fall, the Black Lives Next Door website went live with initial research exploring the early years of George Mason College and its transition to a university in 1972. The project, conducted under the auspices of the Center for Mason Legacies, is an ongoing interdisciplinary collaborative effort to highlight voices that history has suppressed.

“This project reflects what we believe, the importance of researching and understanding the past, the importance of showing just how messy history is,” said history librarian George Oberle III, director of the Center for Mason Legacies, assistant term professor and Mason alum. “What we’ve learned is that Mason, while one of the most diverse destinations of higher learning in the U.S., has a haunting past.”

Oberle, Benedict Carton, associate professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and LaNitra M. Berger, associate director of the African and African American Studies Program and senior director of fellowships in the Office of Undergraduate Education, are the founders and primary supervisors of the Black Lives Next Door Project.  

The website has a section titled Black Student Biographies, which includes individual stories of Black students in the early days of Mason and the struggles they faced. One biography describes Irma R. Willson’s battle in the 1960s for enrollment in the college and then to change the campus environment. Another section delves into racial ridicule at Mason. In addition, the website has a section describing the School Street neighborhood, a Black community that used to exist near Mason.

“I hope that the legacy of this project is that we recognize what happened in our history and highlight problems from Mason’s past and the community’s past that maybe people don’t want to recognize but should for the sake of recognizing and honoring the erased Black history of Fairfax,” said Veronica Mata, a senior majoring in government and international politics who participated in the research.

The project was inspired by a New York Times opinion piece “Black Lives Next Door” by legal scholar Richard Rothstein, who called for more studies of “comprehensive racial inequity” at the local level, said Berger. 

“Now that Mason is turning 50, it’s a good opportunity to look backwards like this and embrace the past, both the good and the bad, as part of the discussion of what Mason will like going forward,” said Berger.

Over the summer, six undergraduate students, two doctoral candidates and faculty members examined the early years of George Mason College, the institutional predecessor to Mason. The group, which received funding through the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR), attended a two-week research seminar and then probed into primary source material to answer questions about how segregation affected the college and its community and what happened to the Black communities that were once part of the Northern Virginia landscape. Speakers, including Marcia Chatelain, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Georgetown University historian, helped hone the students’ research skills and inspire them in their work. Rothstein also spoke to the students in the fall after the site was published.

Anne Dobberteen, a doctoral candidate in history and a digital humanities graduate research assistant, was one of two graduate students working over the summer to help guide the undergraduate students in their research. She found particularly interesting how few Black students attended Mason as recently as the early 1970s and how far they had to commute to attend.

“Black students were dispersed throughout the region at that time,” Dobberteen said. “It was still a very white college at that time.”

Honors College senior Kyler B. Buckner’s research led him to former Mason professor Robert Houston, considered a “revolutionary” by Mason College administration in the late 1960s for protesting the Vietnam War and running teach-ins on societal racism.

“It was the 1960s and Virginia, so I expected to learn there was racism,” said Buckner, a sociology major. “What was unexpected was finding that there were people trying to do something about it, resisting.”

Berger hopes that the work Mason is doing inspires other colleges and universities to similarly research the hidden lives and suppressed voices within their own communities. As part of that effort, Berger and others have started a social media campaign: #blacklivesnextdoor.

Meanwhile, said Berger, research at Mason is ongoing, and they are always seeking sources of funding.

“I’m so proud of these students and what they’ve accomplished with their high-quality work,” Berger said. “It’s rewarding to watch students get so excited about learning and conducting research of consequence.”