The Immigrant: John Morarity

By Anne Dobberteen

John Morarity (aka Moriarty) was an Irish immigrant who purchased land from Judge Henry Thomas. This land became an anchor for the Black community: his land would eventually house his American descendants and extended family, baseball diamonds, and much of the Eleven Oaks Elementary School campus.

Morarity was born around 1831 and probably came to the United States as a young man, arriving in Fairfax by the 1850s. It is possible that he had accompanied Irish people sailing across the ocean to American Mid-Atlantic ports. These immigrants answered labor recruiting advertisements placed by the Orange & Alexandria Railroad Company to work on a railroad line passing through Providence (renamed Fairfax in 1874). A biographical sketch available at the Fairfax County Historic Records Center states that Morarity took the Oath of U.S. Citizenship in 1859 and voted at the Fairfax Court House that year.[1] During the Civil War, he worked on the Allison family plantation called Hibernia, a tract that is now part of the George Mason University campus facing Chain Bridge Road. There is no evidence that Morarity joined the military or saw combat.  After the defeat of the Confederacy, he sued the Allisons for back wages.  In 1879 legal testimony, he confirmed his employment with Robert Allison, a farmer. The illiterate Morarity signed a court document with the mark “x.”[2]

John Morarity worked on Hibernia, the Allison plantation, and his partner, Eliza, died in childbirth there around 1874.

Morarity had a long-term romantic relationship with an African American woman named Eliza Turley. It is unlikely that the two were legally married, but they lived together and the couple created a family together when white and Black people were discouraged from doing so. Eliza may have been enslaved by the Allisons, and it is likely that she and John Morarity became intimate at Hibernia; more research is needed on her possible enslavement. Eliza Turley and John Morarity had their first child, Joseph (Tobe), shortly before the Civil War. Sources present different birth dates for Joseph, ranging from ca. 1857 to ca. 1860. Five more children followed: George, Sina, John R., Daniel, and Thomas.[3]

After weathering the Civil War and navigating Reconstruction, Eliza Turley succumbed to complications as she was birthing a newborn at Hibernia in 1874; her infant son also perished.  That she passed away on the Allison property indicated that she had retained a tie to a place where she may have once been held in bondage.

Dorcas Pearson reported Eliza Morarity and her son's death.

John Morarity reported Eliza Turley's death.

Dorcas Pearson and John Morarity each reported the demise of Eliza Turley and her infant son. Dorcas was Eliza’s female acquaintance whose knowledge of the deceased baby’s sex suggests proximity to Turley’s fatal delivery. Dorcas reported that Eliza’s sister-in-law Amy Turley also perished in childbirth that year. Most important, Dorcas named her late friend Eliza Morarity, thereby identifying her as the wife of John Morarity. But John, likely the deceased baby’s father, called his partner Eliza Turley; there was no reference to a spousal relationship. The Fairfax Register of Deaths suggests that John had initially self-identified as Eliza’s husband, but evidently decided not to disclose this detail after her passing. The Register of Deaths entry shows that the recorder started to enter “John” in the “Consort of, or Unmarried” column but then simply listed Eliza as unmarried. Towards the end of Reconstruction, the widower may have chosen to dissociate himself from his late partner, perhaps fearing that the courthouse official handling the register might cause trouble for the Morarity family. It could have been the case that the couple were also separated or estranged when Eliza and her infant died.[4]

John Morarity changed his relationship to Eliza from "consort" to "friend" as he reported her death in 1875.

Nevertheless, John did not remove himself from Fairfax’s Black community, nor did he disown his children with Eliza. The 1880 U.S. Census placed John, his sons and daughter in Jermantown, i.e., the “colored” part of town, with Robert Hunter’s household in “Dwelling 413.” During the next decade, Morarity entered a rent-to-purchase contract for ten acres of land belonging to Judge Henry Thomas. Hunter, the “mulatto” man whom the Moraritys knew well, entered into a similar agreement to purchase another parcel of Thomas property in 1883 facing Chain Bridge Road.[5] The 1902-1903 Fairfax County Voter Registers list John Morarity as white but indicate he was associated with the Black community with at “col” notation by his name. If we assume that he had moved to the land he had bought from Thomas by that time, next to Hunter’s, this would indicate that the area on and around Thomas’s property was becoming home to at least some of Fairfax’s Black community by that point.[6]

Morarity and Hunter's lots on Thomas's land were right next to each other.

Marriage license for Thomas Morarity and Venie Gibson, 1896.

Generations of Moraritys lived in Fairfax on or near a parcel of land. John Morarity’s son Thomas’s 1890 marriage certificate, recording his union with Luvenia “Venie” Gibson, stated that John and Eliza Morarity were the groom’s married parents. This document clearly indicates that the family patriarch and matriarch were remembered by one of their children as husband and wife. All of John and Eliza’s children were identified as “colored” or “mulatto” in census and marriage documents, indicating that their community ties were with the African Americans of Fairfax; they were not persons who used a light skin color to “pass” into white society, leaving their families and roots behind.[7] These Morarity descendants became pillars of Fairfax’s Black community; one grandson, Warren “Chick” Morarity, opened a popular convenience store across the street from his family’s property in 1948.[8] Another grandson, Lewis Morarity, was a leader of the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. 

In his last will and testament, John Morarity legally recognized the sons and daughter he had with Eliza. The will made provisions for his children to inherit sections of the ten acres he bought from Judge Thomas in 1890.[9] Two Morarity sons were not listed in his will; these children, George and Thomas, had already established themselves as owners of parcels of the original ten acres. In 1951, the first generation of Morarity descendants still held title to the land that they inherited, although some had not built on it. The next year Robert D. Graham acquired this undeveloped Morarity property on behalf of the Fairfax School Board to expand the Rosenwald School into a new Eleven Oaks Elementary campus for segregated public use and the education of Black children in 1952.[10]

John Morarity's will explicitly provided for his and Eliza's children.

Luvenia purchased land from John Morarity directly while he was still alive.

John Morarity could not have known that his property would become an institutional center of Fairfax’s Black community. When he succumbed to cancer in 1904, whoever was responsible for his obituary in the local town paper chose to remember his work as a janitor for the clerk of the court; there was no mention in this death notice of surviving Morarity family members.[11]

It is not difficult to imagine John Morarity, a poor Irishman likely facing anti-immigrant prejudice in a new country, experiencing significant challenges in Virginia. He nevertheless found employment and managed to save money to purchase ten acres of land for his descendants near the end of his life. He and his partner, or wife, Eliza navigated the Civil War and Reconstruction as the patriarch and matriarch of a working class, mixed-race family who eventually enjoyed the security of home ownership on that land that would come to be known as School Street.  


[1] Nan Netherton and Whitney Von Lake Wyckoff, Fairfax Station: All Aboard! (1995), 20; City of Fairfax Virginia, “City History,”

[2] John Morarity v. Robert Allison, admr., 1867, Term Papers Box 076 TP 1869-214 to TP 1869-319; Chancery Cases: Johnathan Roberts (Sheriff) Admr of Robert Allison v. Martha A. Allison, Widow & Heirs of James G. Allison, 1879, CFF 2N p. 2 or 2, FCCHRC.

[3] The 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census list their children; John identifies the children as products of his relationship with Eliza in his will, Will Book 2 p 470, 1900, FCCHRC.

[4] U.S. Census Bureau 1880, retrieved from; Death Register cards for Eliza Morarity and Eliza Turley, FFCCHR; Register of Deaths, Fairfax County, Providence Township, for the year ending December 31, 1874 and again in Register of Deaths, Fairfax County, Southern District, for the year ending December 31, 1875, FFCCHR. It is unclear why the death was reported in two different years, in two districts, but it is safe to assume that this is the same person.

[5]DB I-5 p 69, FFCCHR.

[6] General Register, Fairfax County, 1902-1903, “Roll of White Voters Registered at F(airfax)C(ourt)H(ouse),” FFCCHR; Edward Coleman Trexler, Early African-Americans: Families of Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, Origins (Self-publishes, Fairfax, Virginia: 2012), 68.

[7] Marriage license for Thomas Morarity and Venie Gibson, November 14, 1896, Fairfax County, retrieved from; for a discussion on the culture surrounding “passing” in the late nineteenth century, see Carl Jacoby, The Strange Career of William Ellis, The Texas Slave who Became a Mexican Millionaire (Norton: 2016).

[8] DB 666 p 291, FCCHRC.

[9] DB J-5, p. 524, FCCHRC.

[10] DB 1025 p 84, FCCHRC.

[11] “John Morarity Obituary,” Fairfax Herald, February 26, 1904, 3.


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