Justin Fairfax discovers roots as he makes history in VA

Updated: Feb. 7, 2018 at 5:45 PM EST
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Democrat Justin Fairfax, Virginia's new lieutenant governor, is learning about his rich history...as he is making it.

Almost one month ago, on Jan. 13, 2018, the 38-year-old father of two was sworn in as Virginia's lieutenant governor. Fairfax is only the second African-American elected to state office in Virginia's 229-year history.

"You know, it's a really powerful thing, in a lot of ways," Fairfax said. "I think it represents the progress we as Virginian's have been able to make."

As history was being made that cold, rainy January day, Fairfax learned more about where he came from.

Fairfax says just 20 minutes before taking the oath of office, his father, Roger Fairfax, Sr., handed him a piece of paper.

At first, Justin tried to hand it back because he didn't know what his father was giving him. Then, his father explained the importance.

"It was the manumission papers for my three-greats-ago grandfather Simon Fairfax in 1798, and he was freed by the Ninth Lord Fairfax," Fairfax said. "And so, as I raised my right hand to take the oath of office as lieutenant governor of Virginia, I had in my breast pocket the papers that freed my three-greats-ago grandfather."

Roger Fairfax, Sr., had found the emancipation document just days prior in a search for the truth that would take decades.

It all started in 1991. Justin was just 12 when his father's parents passed away. Roger Fairfax went to clean out his parents' house when he found a Bible that would begin a journey into the family's ancestry.

"In that Bible were clues that would ultimately lead us to that moment on inauguration," Fairfax said.

Clues like birth, death and marriage dates and various names.

From the Bible, Roger Fairfax figured out names of various relatives. George Fairfax was Justin's great, great grandfather. Then through marriage records, they discovered George's father was Simon Fairfax.

That's all they really knew about their family history, until a string of other stories helped the family piece more together.

About a year ago, Roger Fairfax met a woman named Carmel Powell who lives in Reston, Virginia. Powell's story begins years ago, after moving into a home across the street from an old graveyard with just one headstone left; the headstone is for a woman named Rose Carter.

Fairfax says when Powell originally moved in, she was told by the builder that Carter was a slave owner who had built the Cartersville Baptist Church down the street.

A couple of years later, Powell stopped by the church to give a donation. She began talking to members of the congregation about the headstone. She brought up that someone told her Rose Carter was a slave owner - she was quickly corrected. In fact, she was told, Carter was a free African-American woman who donated her land to the church.

Powell, an African-American woman herself, wondered how an African-American woman prior to the Civil War would have the money and land to donate to a church.

She then researched and discovered Rose Carter was the child of Bethia and Simon Fairfax - Justin Fairfax's great-great-great grandfather.

Bethia's mother was an African-American, free woman named Sarah Ambrose. Ambrose was in a relationship with a white, prominent man named William Gunnell (possibly Bethia's father, but Fairfax is not entirely sure).

Gunnell was among the most prominent families in Northern Virginia and was close to Lord Fairfax. Gunnell's family didn't approve of his relationship with Ambrose.

Gunnell eventually died and left all his land and money, according to Fairfax, to his wife Sarah and possible daughter Bethia. He left none to his family. Eventually, the two women would donate that land to create Cartersville Baptist Church. The name is after Rose Carter.

Again, Rose Carter is the daughter of Bethia and Simon Fairfax. Her brother is George Fairfax, who was in the book found in Justin Fairfax's grandparents' basement.

As the stories began to tie together, Fairfax and his family continued to search for more information. They turned to a woman they had gone to before, Maddy McCor, who is the founder of Slavery Inventory Database. McCoy had looked for the Fairfax family before in the database and hadn't found much.

That is, until two days before Fairfax was set to be sworn in, McCoy found the manumission for Simon Fairfax.

Simon Fairfax was freed by Thomas Fairfax, the ninth Lord Fairfax. He also freed another man, who doesn't appear to be related. According to Justin Fairfax, Lord Fairfax freed many of his slaves throughout his life.

Another thing to note on the Manumission document, William Gunnell is said to have appeared as a witness to the emancipation. It isn't clear if that's the William Gunnell who fell in love with Sarah Ambrose.

The manumission document was given to Justin's father just days before his inauguration. Fairfax said it was an emotional moment.

As it was when Fairfax received the manumission document and held it with him on Inauguration Day. Fairfax doesn't know if his family members could have ever imagined he'd be where he is today, but he says he knows they were hopeful and constantly strived to help others... something he continues to do in his political profession.

"For Simon Fairfax, I think about the day he was emancipated in 1798. To think in 2018, his great-great-great grandson would be on the steps of the capitol in Richmond to take oath of office as lieutenant governor...I don't know if that's something he could of imagined," Fairfax said. "Maybe it is, but they had the hope to keep going."

Fairfax is already taking a stand in what he believes in. He told NBC12 about a moment weeks ago, when the state senators planned to adjourn a session in memory of Robert E. Lee.

Fairfax says he sat off the platform in protest. He will continue to fight for equality for all Virginians.

Fairfax often carries the manumission with him to remind him of his and America's past, as he paves the way for future generations as the new Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.

"I hope 100, 150 years from now there will be families and others who say because of what we did today, they got to take an incredible journey," Fairfax said.

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