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Poised to make history, Justin Fairfax got a powerful reminder of his own heritage

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D-Va.) in his office with the copy of his ancestor's manumission document that his father gave him shortly before he was sworn in earlier this month. (Gregory Schneider/TWP)

RICHMOND — Roger Fairfax Sr. had something he needed to show his son.

It was Inauguration Day earlier this month, and in just 20 minutes Justin Fairfax (D) would be sworn in as Virginia's lieutenant governor. In a room in the state Capitol, steps from where Robert E. Lee accepted command of Confederate troops in 1861, Roger Fairfax handed his son a piece of paper.

It was a copy of the manumission document of their ancestor, Simon Fairfax — born into slavery but emancipated by this handwritten deed on June 5, 1798.

Roger had seen it for the first time the day before. Now, in the happy swirl of people heading into the cold for the swearing-in ceremony, Justin Fairfax looked at the white photocopy and tried to hand it back to his dad for safekeeping.

"Justin, I want you to hold it," his father said. "This will be a story your children and grandchildren will want to hear."

So Fairfax tucked it in the pocket of his coat and marched out to take his oath as only the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia.

"It was really powerful," he said.

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It was also exceedingly rare. Many African American families have scarce traces of their history because so little about enslaved people was documented. But Fairfax, who has always been asked about a last name he shares with one of the most powerful families of early Virginia, has been discovering his roots just as he makes history of his own.

The path to finding that document began in a basement in Washington in 1991, when Justin Fairfax was 12. His father's parents had died, and the family was there to clean out the house. In a trunk they found an old Bible, full of marriage and death records.

Roger Fairfax had never known much about his background, but the clues in that Bible sparked an interest in tracking it down.

A portrait of a well-dressed man turned out to be George Fairfax, Justin's great-great grandfather. He was a wealthy coal merchant in Foggy Bottom in the late 1800s.

Through marriage records, Roger Fairfax eventually found the name of George's father: Simon Fairfax. That was as far as he could get until a little over a year ago, when he came into contact with Carmen Powell.

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She and her husband had bought a home near Reston in 1998 that was built next to a small cemetery. Only one headstone still stood, bearing the name Rose Carter. The builder had told Powell that Rose Carter was a slave owner who had built the nearby Cartersville Baptist Church as a place for free and enslaved blacks to worship.

One day a couple of years ago, Powell, who owns a government contracting company, stopped by the church and offered to make a donation to help the aging, dwindling congregation. She mentioned the slave owner's grave, but the church members corrected her. Their church had been founded in 1863 by free blacks.

Powell, who is African American, began researching. Rose Carter, she learned, was not a white slave owner but was actually a free woman of color. She and her mother had owned a considerable amount of land in the area that's now Reston, and had donated the property for the church.

So how did two black women come to own property before the Civil War? Powell said she unearthed a love story to explain it. Rose Carter's grandparents were a black woman named Sarah Ambrose and a wealthy white man named William Gunnell.

Gunnell's family was among the most prominent in Northern Virginia before and after the Revolution, close with Lord Fairfax and George Washington. When William Gunnell fell in love with Sarah Ambrose and took her as his common-law wife around 1800, Powell said, the family tried to kick him out. But he willed his property to her.

And this is where Powell's research connected her to Roger Fairfax. The daughter of William Gunnell and Sarah Ambrose was named Bethia. She grew up to marry Simon Fairfax, and their children included Rose Carter, the church founder, and George Fairfax, the wealthy coal merchant whose portrait was in Roger Fairfax's family Bible.

Powell had no idea that Justin Fairfax was running for lieutenant governor last year when she met him for the first time and showed him the graveyard and the little church. But she's thrilled now to see how this family tale has played out.

"It's truly a story of love and romance and kindness and sacrifice," she said.

There was still one big loose end, though, and that was Simon Fairfax. For that, Roger Fairfax had appealed to Maddy McCoy. The founder of the Slavery Inventory Database, McCoy has scoured courthouses around Northern Virginia for records relating to the families of former slaves.

She had helped Roger Fairfax over the years, but after Justin Fairfax won his election and was poised to take office, she decided to make one more run at his ancestor. In the deed section of the Fairfax County courthouse, she found the manumission document just two days before inauguration.

In it, Thomas Fairfax — the ninth Lord Fairfax — frees two former slaves, Simon and another man named Causey, who doesn't appear to be related. Though the document gives no reason for the emancipation, Thomas Fairfax was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist and theologian who was a passionate abolitionist. Fairfax had many slaves, but freed them sporadically over much of his life.

One intriguing detail: One of the witnesses listed on the emancipation document is William Gunnell. Whether that's the lover of Sarah Ambrose or the lover's father is unclear.

McCoy met Roger Fairfax at a restaurant just a day before his son's inauguration to give him a copy of the beautifully handwritten page.

"I cried. Roger cried. It's just the power of these documents," she said.

Now that Justin Fairfax has this window into his heritage, he's still processing the significance of it. He keeps the copy his father gave him in his office on Capitol Square, and sometimes carries it with him in his jacket.

This past Thursday, Fairfax learned that state senators planned to adjourn that day's session in memory of Robert E. Lee. As state Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford) declared that Lee's legacy "has fallen victim to . . . a contemporary rewriting of history" and that the general "did not go to war to preserve slavery," Fairfax sat off to the side in quiet protest.

In his pocket was the document that released his great-great-great grandfather from bondage.

"I was just reminding myself of that journey," Fairfax said later, gathering his papers from the dais. Simon Fairfax could never have envisioned setting foot on that ground, let alone presiding over the Senate of Virginia. "I was reminding myself what our ancestors had to go through to get to a point like we're having now . . . We can make progress if we keep our eyes on the future."