During the summer of 2020, a time of protest against police killings of unarmed Black people, the legal scholar Richard Rothstein wrote a New York Times op-ed titled, “Black Lives Next Door.”[1]  Having recently authored The Color of Law, he called for more studies of “comprehensive racial inequity…that allows abusive…practices to flourish” at the local level.[2]  Rothstein's groundbreaking work inspired our investigation.

From May to August 2021, six undergraduates, three faculty members, and two doctoral candidates examined the early years of George Mason College,  the university's institutional predecessor founded in 1949.  The team asked a series of questions: How did segregation affect George Mason College and its surrounding communities and public schools? Were all citizens welcome to learn and teach at the new college in Fairfax? To what extent did civil rights movements mobilize students and faculty, and their neighbors?  Was anti-racist activism a part of campus life?

Other questions, probing deeper histories, framed the inquiry.  As Northern Virginia burgeoned into a mega-suburb, what happened to the Black residents? Was it true that 25% of the "inhabitants" of Fairfax County were designated "colored" in the 1900 US census?  Seventy years later they comprised 3% of the population.  Did Black people willingly move away?  Were they compelled to leave their homes?  Could they resist suburbanization? If so, can their struggles be recovered?  Whose voices will be heard? Had widespread dispossession occurred? If so, was it a systemic process?  Did legacies of slavery directly influence the establishment of George Mason College? 

A body of scholarship cited in The Color of Law has analyzed how institutions of higher education disruptively expanded their footprint.  George Mason College fits this profile. Its administrators vowed not to “wipe out the Negro  . . . next door” by exploiting “changes in zoning” or condemning and buying up properties. This promise did not hold. In July 1971, the Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission found that Black householders near George Mason College faced mounting pressure to move away. [3] For years, adjoining Black communities had raised concerns that George Mason College showed no interest in addressing their residential, social, and educational needs. Only a few students of color had gained admission by the late 1960s.[4] Without offering restitution, the United States Civil Rights Commission briefly addressed these issues before relaying its conclusion: “George Mason College was conceived of, by, and for the white[s] . . .  of Northern Virginia.”[5]

Today, the extraordinary heterogenous composition of George Mason University is something to behold. Our institution rightly advertises its elite standing as one of the most diverse destinations of higher learning in the United States. Yet if our early findings offer any indication, this well-deserved ranking is a recent development with haunting pasts.

The Black Lives Next Door website provides a gateway to explore these pasts.  This project has just begun to learn about the experiences of people dislodged from a booming county, which now takes pride in Virginia's largest public university.  We welcome you to engage and support our ongoing efforts.

 


[1] Richard Rothstein, “The Black Lives Next Door,” New York Times, 14 August 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/14/opinion/sunday/blm-residential-segregation.html.

[2] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017); Richard Rothstein, “The Black Lives Next Door,” New York Times, 14 August 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/14/opinion/sunday/blm-residential-segregation.html.  Our team's methodological approaches were shaped by other scholars' critical assessment of the issues highlighted by Rothstein.  See, for example:  Robert Beauregard, How America Became Suburban (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Paige Glotzer, How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890-1960 (New York: Columbia University, 2020); Kenneth T.  Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). The field of Black geographies informed spatial and historical interpetations, as well:  Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019); Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Jodi Rios, Black Lives and Spatial Matters: Policing Blackness and Practicing Freedom in Suburban St. Louis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020).  Professor Wendi Manuel-Scott introduced and led our discussions of the texts cited above.

[3] United States Commission on Civil Rights Virginia State Advisory Committee, George Mason College: For All the People? A Report of An Investigation (Richmond, 1971), 22.

[4] George Mason College was also known for its lax recruitment and retention of Black faculty. 

[5] United States Commission on Civil Rights Virginia State Advisory Committee, George Mason College: For All the People? A Report of An Investigation (Richmond, 1971), 27.

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