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


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.

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 also a petition here that you can endorse too. And if you hate this idea, please send me an email and tell me why.

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

The scope of Silas Burke’s involvement in the enslavement economy isn’t something people in Burke talk about. I lived here for nearly 20 years before I ever heard of him, and I had to sift through 200-year-old newspapers and court records to learn what little I could.


There are documents on this website that haven’t been seen in public for nearly 200 years. A newspaper ad from 1840, for instance, identifies Silas Burke as the overseer of a slave auction at the Fairfax County courthouse. He was a county judge at the time, and sat on the county school commission. (The ad ran at least 11 times in the Alexandria Gazette.)


Court records from 1836 show Silas Burke being tasked to sell enslaved people belonging to a woman whose husband, a man named James Keene, had unpaid debts when he died. Much of her inherited property was auctioned off, including her human property. Silas was in charge. And when one of those slaves sued for his freedom, Silas ignored seven separate federal court summonses rather than coming to Washington to defend his actions.

An 1826 court document shows that when his father died, Silas paid cash for a few pieces of the estate before it was divided among the Burke siblings. His shopping list? All 187 acres of his father’s land, a heifer (a young cow ready to reproduce), two work steers (to pull a plow), and “one negro boy Fenton.” Silas would enslave more children as he climbed the social ladder and his wealth ballooned.

A county clerk wrote down what Silas Burke bought from his father’s estate on a June day in 1826. His shopping list: “187 acres of land, one Negro boy Fenton, one pair of work steers, one small heifer.” 

Fairfax County has been stripping the names of Confederate generals from roads, schools and county districts, so renaming a town won’t be a shocking idea. But this isn’t about the Confederacy: Silas Burke died seven years before the Civil War started. It’s about human rights. And if you’re a fan of Silas, for whatever reason, fear not: His last name will still saturate the town.


In a single ZIP code, you can find “Burke” in the names of 15 streets, five shopping centers, three public parks, a school, a lake, a post office, a train station, a par 3 golf course, a fire department, at least five residential developments, a homeowners association that serves 40 percent of the population, and the “Silas Burke House.” That’s his well-preserved plantation mansion. It’s near the Burke School, close to where Burke Lake Road meets Burke Centre Parkway, not far from Burkewood Street, Burke View Avenue and Burke View Court, and less than a mile from Burke Road, the Burke Village Center strip mall and the Shops at Burke Station. 


That’s not an exaggeration.


Please read about the Fenton Project and add your name to the petition on this website. Share this website on social media. Talk to your neighbors at the morning school bus pickup. Start a conversation wherever you worship. If you’re a teenager, ask your parents what they think. 


Burke isn’t just a fantastic place to build a life and raise children. It’s filled with kind and welcoming people, and I’m betting they’re courageous enough to confront the ugly details of what kind of man our town’s mascot was.


We can’t escape the fact that the land on which our homes sit was almost certainly, at one time or another, plowed, sown and harvested by people whose value was appraised alongside horses and furniture. Let’s honor one of them, a faceless child named Fenton. And let’s knock his “master” down a peg. It’s time.


With Thanks,

David Martosko

p.s. If you want to help by covering part of the Fenton Project’s expenses, you can contribute via GoFundMe. Look at the top of this page for the words "Financial transparency." I'm regularly updating public spreadsheet of donations and expenses.

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