Burke, Virginia, is named after an enslaver. A journalist wants to change that

<span>A ledger reading, at center, ‘one negro boy Fenton’, that David Martosko found in his research of Silas Burke.</span><span>Photograph: David Martosko</span>
A ledger reading, at center, ‘one negro boy Fenton’, that David Martosko found in his research of Silas Burke.Photograph: David Martosko

A former reporter has launched a campaign to rename his Virginia hometown, Burke, to stop the commemoration of an enslaver and instead honor a child he enslaved, a six-year-old boy named Fenton.

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“My town is named after an unusually horrible person,” David Martosko said, “but it doesn’t have to be. Names say something about who we are and what we aspire to become.

“I can’t imagine anyone of any conscience in my community defending this guy. I hope honouring a child he owned will appeal to my community’s basic sense of right and wrong.”

Martosko worked for the Daily Caller before becoming the chief US political correspondent for MailOnline. He now presents classical music for WETA, a Washington DC radio station, and has lived in Burke, Virginia, for 20 years.

Situated in Fairfax county, about 19 miles south-west of Washington, the town of Burke is named for Silas Burke, a judge, sheriff, farmer and businessman who in 1824 built a house that still stands. As acknowledged by county authorities, Burke was also an overseer at a plantation and enslaved people on his own farm.

Martosko got interested in Burke while researching traditions around the Juneteenth holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery.

“His name came up a few times. [I thought] I should learn more about this guy, because nobody seems to know much. If I ask the Burke Historical Society about Silas Burke, generally their answer is that he’s an enigma to everybody. So I thought it was weird. Somebody who eventually was the chief judge in the county, he left so few breadcrumbs. So I decided to chase them. …

“There were enormously helpful people at the National Archives, especially at the Fairfax county historic records room. Other counties helped, and the Library of Virginia was very helpful too.”

The result is the Fenton Project, through which Martosko wants to rename two census-designated places, Burke and Burke Centre, as Fenton and Fenton Centre – a move that theoretically should prove easier than renaming an incorporated town, because only the federal government can do so.

In Virginia, Martosko says, “you can’t swing a golf club without hitting something touched by slavery. But I would bet fewer than 10% of the people who live in Burke have ever heard of Silas Burke.

“But anybody could do this. It’s just a matter of putting in the time and not giving up. It’s like what I used to tell journalism interns on day one: ‘The things in life that are most worth knowing are not already on Google. And so you have to go out and hunt this stuff down.’ And I did. That’s it.”

Martosko uncovered records of the purchase of the child Fenton in 1826, for $206, alongside land ($471.24), a pair of work steers ($26) and a small heifer ($3.50). Using property tax records, on which enslaved people were listed once they became 12 years old, Martosko worked out that Fenton in all likelihood had been just six when Burke bought him.

It is the earliest record of a person enslaved by Burke. Fenton’s fate is not clear. Twenty-four years later, in 1850, census records show Burke enslaving nine children. County records from 1855, a year after Burke’s death, list 14 enslaved people priced from $150 to $800.

Chillingly, Martosko also found an advertisement printed in the Alexandria Gazette on 9 November 1840, in which “a lot of negroes … consisting of a young woman with two small children” are offered for sale, said to be “sound” and to “bear excellent characters”.

The ad concludes: “Any information, in relation to the said negroes, may be obtained by application to Col Silas Burke, of Fairfax county.”

Burke died in 1854, seven years before a civil war fueled by the divide over slavery, nine years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and 11 years before Virginia and the other Confederate states experienced total defeat.

Since 2020, when the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis fueled global protests, attempts to reckon with historic racial injustice have been made across the US. Efforts including removals of statues of Confederate leaders and the renaming of military bases named for Confederate generals have prompted opposition on the political right.

Martosko said historians he consulted asked not to be named. Many descendants of Burke, he said, may not know of such roots.

“I’ve met in Richmond with the legislators who represent Burke in the state,” he said, “and nobody has pushed back and said: ‘This is a bad idea.’

“Politicians always want to jump on a moving train. So we’ll see if they want to endorse this or not. But the only pushback I got was from a local official who said: ‘You know, it might be better for things to be left alone. Because right now people associate the name Burke with the good things about the town.’ And I think that’s fair.

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“Burke is a wonderful place to live. I raised two children here … my neighbours are kind and thoughtful and considerate people of conscience. Which means I think they’ll want to know, that people can know what I’m going to tell them and decide whatever they’d like. And being Virginia, you know, I think there are going to be people who are still fascinated enough with the civil war … that I think they will find their applecart turned over a little bit.”

After launching a website on Wednesday, Martosko plans to hold a public meeting in two weeks’ time. The project will proceed from there.

That’s the future. But Martosko’s look into Virginia’s dark past also produced a tangible sign of Burke in the town named for him: his gravestone. The family burial ground was “behind a couple of houses, buried in thorn bushes” Martosko had to crawl through, sustaining “scrapes and cuts to prove it”.

The gravestone lies cracked in two.