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

Frequently Asked Questions

Aren’t you blaming Silas Burke for doing what was considered normal 200 years ago?

Silas Burke wasn’t farming 10 leased acres with a single enslaved laborer. His property included 14 human beings when he died, which put him at the 90th percentile among Fairfax County slaveholders (and the 95th percentile among all landowners in the county). He also ran the Ravensworth Plantation for the widow of William H. Fitzhugh, whose family forced more than 80 enslaved people to work back-breaking hours with no hope that anything would ever change.

Even more troubling is Silas Burke’s direct participation in auctioning human beings for profit. That’s an entirely different mess of his own making. If we were picking a mascot to name a town today, there’s no question that Silas’s ties to slave auctions would bump him off everyone’s short list. And rightly so.

So perhaps Silas Burke belongs in a class of historical figures who we can call “super-enslavers.” Yes, there were bigger slave operations in Virginia: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and George Mason owned far more people, putting them at or above the 99.9th percentile. Call them “mega-enslavers” if you’d like. Most Americans seem to believe Jefferson, Washington and Mason’s societal accomplishments outweigh their sins, but it’s hard to make that case for Silas.

Here’s the sad truth: Silas Burke’s human rights standards were always — and continue to be — more common and ordinary than yours and mine. Historians have traced human slavery back at least 5,000 years. Public sales of enslaved Africans were documented as early as AD 1444 in Portugal. And there are more people enslaved today than at any point in recorded history. The least we can do is disassociate ourselves from a villain in our midst.

Why not just replace Silas Burke with a modern African-American hero?

There would be nothing wrong with honoring Arthur Ashe, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Loving or another Virginian. Another no-brainer might be to someday rename the town after Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected African-American governor. (That honor is reserved for people who have been deceased for at least five years.)

What I’m proposing is a different kind of statement, demoting a slaveholder and raising up a precious child at the same time. But “Loving, Virginia” would be a better outcome than renaming Burke “Twin Oaks” or “Woodland Hills.” That’s the kind of solution that results from a failure of imagination.

Aren’t a lot of Fairfax County towns named after white male slave-owners?

Not as many as you might think.


The federal government recognizes 69 “Census Designated Places” in Fairfax County, including incorporated towns like Alexandria and unincorporated towns like Burke. Of those 69, I’ve identified just four that were named after slaveholders (Burke, George Mason, Mason Neck and Pimmit Hills).


Another seven towns carry the names of enslavers’ homes or plantations (Chantilly, Hayfield, Ravensworth, Rose Hill, Springfield, Sully Square and West Springfield). That brings it to 11 if you stretch the definition that far.


It’s fair to argue that names of buildings and farms are no longer associated with the Virginians who built and owned them, since they are (or were) private properties whose ownership passed through many different families after the Civil War. I don’t think that’s true about people’s names.


Silas Burke was a lieutenant colonel. Is this a Civil War project?


Silas Burke died in 1854, seven years before the start of the Civil War, so this isn’t about the Confederacy. It didn’t exist yet.


And he wasn’t a real military officer — just a ceremonial lieutenant colonel in the Virginia state militia. It’s reminiscent of “Colonel” Harland Sanders of KFC fame: Kentucky’s governor gave him his rank with the stroke of a pen.


I haven’t found any evidence that Silas Burke ever mustered, marched, led troops or fired a shot. Francis Coffer, his future wife’s grandfather, gave him his first commission as a militia officer at age 24, and all of his subsequent “promotions” too. Today the town of Burke has a long, curved street called Coffer Woods Road.

Is there already a place in Virginia called “Fenton”?

No. There is no Virginia locality or Census Designated Place called “Fenton.” Nine U.S. states have towns with that name; the nearest one is in Alabama.

Are there already any places in America where the names of slave owners have been replaced by the names of people they enslaved?

I haven’t found evidence of any, and I’ve consulted with two historians who say this is unprecedented. (If you know of one, please email me so I can learn about it.)


America’s former “slave states” are dotted with towns, roads, buildings and bodies of water named after southerners who owned children. So perhaps there are other places where this idea will catch on. I’m not trying to start a trend — only to do the next right thing in front of me — but I think this is an idea that’s too good not to share.

About the Fenton Project

I’m David Martosko. My wife and I moved to Burke in 2003. Both of our children are, in part, products of Fairfax County Public Schools. Thanks for spending enough time on this website to get to this little addendum.


There is no organization behind the Fenton Project and no pot of money. So far it’s just me, but my email address is below.


Who am I? I’m a classical music radio host in Washington and a former political journalist who founded the Washington bureau of the Daily Mail, the famed London newspaper. I covered presidents and candidates in 39 states and 13 countries, flying on Air Force One and logging more than a half-million miles of commercial travel.


I grew up near Cleveland, Ohio and attended Catholic schools, and then Dartmouth College. I later earned a master’s degree from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, which is part of Johns Hopkins University. That led to a brief and unspectacular career as an opera and symphony conductor. But I met my wife during an opera company’s summer season, so everything worked out great. She’s still singing in places like Berlin, Palermo and Carnegie Hall.


If you want to reach me about any of this, I’m at

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