Since 1964, the SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter has bestowed an annual award “to honor a journalist or friend of journalism of exceptional character and dedication to the craft.” We called it the George Mason Award, named for the 18th-century politician and aristocrat who championed the First Amendment and other rights in the founding documents of Virginia and the United States.
The plaque carries one of Mason’s passages from the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “Freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”
We continue to extoll Mason’s words. Journalists can draw strength and inspiration from Mason’s defense of a free press. At the same time, our SPJ chapter acknowledges that Mason was a flawed historical figure who enslaved hundreds of people of African descent at Gunston Hall, his estate in Northern Virginia.
For that reason, as we explain below, the chapter’s board of directors has voted to change the name of its signature award to the SPJVA Lifetime Achievement Award.
On the one hand, Mason wrote in the Virginia Declaration of Rights “That all men are by nature equally free and independent.” But on the other hand, like many other “Founding Fathers,” he denied that freedom to the men, women and children he held in bondage.
In recent years, more Americans have acknowledged the systemic racism that people of color continue to face in U.S., and many organizations and communities have reassessed the names of facilities, landmarks and other items that commemorate people who supported slavery. As a result, they have changed the names of streets, military bases, schools and awards.
The SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter started examining this issue last December when members of our organization gathered at Gunston Hall to mark Mason’s birthday by placing a wreath on his grave and reading aloud the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
Gunston Hall itself has advanced a more balanced view of Mason, noting that he was probably the second-largest enslaver in Fairfax County and that his life posed a “paradox” in which his words did not match his deeds.
Mason was, as The Washington Post has written, “full of contradictions.” He said he detested the trans-Atlantic slave trade, calling it “disgraceful to mankind.” Mason stated that he opposed slavery itself, writing, “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.” But his opposition was based largely on how he felt slavery affected Caucasians, “contaminating the Minds & Morals” of White people — not on the pain and cruelty inflicted on Black people.
Despite his proclaimed condemnation of slavery, Mason benefited from the human bondage that he imposed, living a life of privilege while the people he enslaved toiled. Unlike George Washington, Mason did not free those individuals even after his death.
In light of Mason’s role as an enslaver and his hypocritical and racist history, the SPJVA board voted unanimously in September to change the name of the George Mason Award.
SPJVA also supports and wishes to promote diversity in journalism, as it ensures a more accurate and complete draft of history. It is difficult to stand by those values while actively honoring and a man who considered people of color as less than human.
We continue to honor the freedoms that Mason articulated — especially freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Beginning this year, the award will be known as the SPJVA Lifetime Achievement Award.
Nominate someone for the Lifetime Achievement Award by Nov. 30, 2022.