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

Meet the “Negro Boy” Fenton

Who was Fenton? He was an African American child who belonged to James Burke when the man died. James’s son Silas bought the “Negro boy” from his father’s estate for $206 on June 15, 1826.


How old was the child? Tax records show that Burke didn't declare his ownership of any slaves during the five years after he purchased Fenton. (Human property wasn’t listed until the enslaved person reached the age of 12.) In 1832, however, he listed a single slave “who has attained the age of 12.”)


There’s no record of Silas Burke selling the child. So unless Fenton died, he was probably the 12-year-old Silas declared to tax collectors. That would make him 6 years old when he became Silas’s property. And he would have been 30 at the time of the 1850 census — which recorded the presence of a 30-year-old enslaved man in the Burke household.


We'll never know much more than that. Did Fenton live long enough to be emancipated? Did he punch his ticket on the Underground Railroad? Did he raise a family? Did he know his parents? What did he look like? Could he read and write?


He was just one person in a coarse and ugly grinder. Millions of children like Fenton disappeared into the New World’s enslavement economy over the course of nearly 350 years. His name can be a tribute to all of them.

This is like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. We don’t know whose remains are interred in that marble tomb, but they are proxies for more than 81,000 servicemen and women who are still officially “Missing In Action” from military campaigns since World War II. We honor their sacrifices even though we can’t know anything meaningful about who they were.

In the same way, Fenton is a stand-in for roughly 500,000 human beings who were enslaved in Virginia alone in 1860, the year of the last national census before 11 states seceded. We can’t give Fenton a military guard and an eternal flame, but we can put his name on the map. Quite literally.

bottom of page