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NEXT PUBLIC MEETING: May 1 , 7:30 p.m. at Pohick Regional Library. All are welcome.

The Virginia town of Burke, about 20 miles from Washington, is named after a 19th-century government official who oversaw slave auctions while he was a county judge. And he enslaved as many as 14 people at a time — including children. (There’s ample evidence on this website.)

Lets rename Burke after the first child Silas Burke bought. His name was Fenton.


Silas Burke owned 14 African-American slaves when he died in 1854, but the namesake of Burke, Virginia has a secret in his past that’s far worse. Newspaper advertisements with headlines like “VALUABLE NEGROES FOR SALE” make it clear that he oversaw slave auctions while he was a county judge. Silas also managed a mammoth plantation for a Fairfax County family who enslaved at least 80 people there. 

He also seems to have had an obsession with buying and selling children. He signed a court affidavit in 1845 describing how he took a 12-year-old boy to auction when his “owner” didn’t pay rent on some leased farmland. The boy’s mother was kept in place as a housekeeper and cook while her son went — somewhere. Burke himself was enslaving 13 people at the time of the 1850 U.S. Census, and nine of them were children.

A boy named Fenton stands out because he was the first child Silas Burke purchased. He paid $206 for Fenton in 1826. Tax records make it highly likely the boy was 6 years old at the time. Im proposing that we rename the town of Burke to “Fenton.” This sort of switch for renaming a town — elevating a slave above the person who once owned him — apparently has never been tried. But at least 345 U.S. towns and cities have changed their names.

There’s a straightforward way to do this, and public support will have an enormous impact. If you like this idea and you live in Fairfax County (especially if you live in Burke) I would love to hear from you. There’s a petition that you can endorse as well. And if you hate this idea, please send me an email and tell me why.

SOURCE: Alexandria (VA) Gazette, Nov. 9, 1840.

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