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Great Women Of Arlington

Evelyn Syphax

Evelyn Reid Syphax, was a former Arlington Public Schools Educator and a long a time resident of Arlington Virginia. She served extensively on a variety of elected and appointed boards for schools, civic and community organizations. She was born in Lynchburg, Va., and graduated from Virginia Union University. She received a master’s degree in early childhood education from New York University.

Mrs. Syphax devoted much of her time to education. She served as chairman of the Arlington School Board and led a successful overhaul of the county’s desegregation plan to reduce long bus rides for minority students.

Mrs. Syphax spearheaded programs that provided mentoring and counseling help to underachieving children in efforts to improve their communication skills. She served on the Virginia Advisory Council, The Vocational Education on the Committee to Re-evaluate State Government. She once served as president of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, which she helped organize; president of the Arlington Historical Society; and chairman of the Northern Virginia United Negro College Fund.

Mrs. Syphax was known principally for her spirited volunteer work. She raised funds for the Arlington Cultural Arts Center and, in 1994, founded the Black Heritage Museum, which honors the history of African Americans in Arlington.

Mrs. Syphax was also was a businesswoman who owned and served as director of the Early Childhood Development Center, a Montessori school in Arlington, from 1963 to 1987. For shorter periods of time, she ran a private residential center for senior citizens and owned a thrift shop.

She received many honors including 1981 Arlington Woman of the Year from the Interservice Club Council. In 1992, the Arlington County Commission on the Status of Women honored her as a Notable Woman of Arlington.

Mrs. Syphax taught in the Arlington public schools in the 1950s, a decade when racial segregation was still the rule in the state’s education system. She recalled that era for a Washington Post reporter in a 1996 story:

“The need to end racial separation was clear to her in many ways, starting with her class size of 39 students. ‘All the books were discards from the white schools. All the black teachers were busy taping them up,’ she said. ‘The schools were practically crumbling around us in the black schools.’ “

Arlington tried to integrate its schools quickly, but was ordered by the state to close its schools rather than integrate. A court ruling resulted in a victory for Arlington integration.

On Feb. 2, 1959, four black students entered Arlington’s Stratford Junior High School, making it the first integrated public school in Virginia. Mrs. Syphax had taught all four of the students as their third-grade teacher at Langston Elementary School.

In 2006, the arlington school board voted unanimously to name Arlington’s education center in honor of Evelyn Reid Syphax.

Selina Norris Gray

Selina Norris Gray, the daughter of Leonard and Sally Norris, was a second-generation Arlington slave. Selina Norris and Thornton Gray were married by an Episcopal clergyman in the same room of the house where Mary Custis had married Robert E. Lee in 1831.

While the church recognized the marriage, the union of slaves was not legally binding. Slaves, as property, could not enter into legally binding contracts. Selina and Thornton would have eight children and raised their family in a single room in the south slave quarters.

Selina was the personal maid of Mrs. Robert E. Lee and the two enjoyed a very close relationship. In 1861, under the threat of union occupation, the Lee family evacuated Arlington and Mrs. Lee left the household keys, symbolizing authority, responsibility and her trust to Selina Gray. Locked away inside Arlington House were many of the “Washington Treasures.” These pieces were cherished family heirlooms that had once belonged to Mrs. Lee’s great-grandmother, Martha Custis Washington, and President George Washington.

The United States Army assumed control of the Arlington Estate on May 24,1861. Later, U.S. Army officers occupied the house. When Mrs. Gray discovered some of the treasures had been stolen, she confronted the soldiers and ordered them “not to touch any of Mrs. Lee’s things.” Gray alerted General Irving McDowell, commander of the United States troops, to the importance of the Washington heirlooms. The remaining pieces were sent to the Patent Office for safekeeping. Through Selina Gray’s efforts, many of the Washington pieces were saved for posterity.

Sojounor Truth

Born Isabella [Belle] Baumfree; c. 1797 – November 26, 1883) was an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son in 1828, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.

She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside “testifying the hope that was in her”.

Truth’s best-known speech was delivered extemporaneously, in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The speech became widely known during the Civil War by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?,” a variation of the original speech re-written by someone else using a stereotypical Southern dialect, whereas Sojourner Truth was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army; after the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves (summarised as the promise of “forty acres and a mule).

In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time”. A memorial bust of Truth was unveiled in 2009 in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center. She is the first African American to have a statue in the Capitol building
Sojourner Truth, resided in Freedman’s Village, Arlington Virginia for approximately a year, and worked to assist villagers with access to information. During that time, Sojourner Truth worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association. She counseled the villagers on self-care and self-maintenance, instructed the women in domestic chores, preached the gospel, helped find work for the unemployed, and taught residents how to demand their basic human rights be represented and respected.

Joan Mulholland

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (born September 14, 1941) is an American civil rights activist and a Freedom Rider from Arlington Virginia. She is known for taking part in sit-ins, being the first white to integrate Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi and joining the Delta Sigma Theta sorority,] joining Freedom Rides, and being held on death row in Parchman Penitentiary.

She ultimately retired after teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for 40 years and started the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation, dedicated to educating the youth about the Civil Rights Movement and how to become activists in their own communities

Dorothy Hamm

Dorothy Hamm (1919-2004) was a leading figure in the civil rights movement in the Commonwealth of Virginia, an author, teacher, and elections officer.

Hamm led efforts to desegregate schools in Virginia, to improve fairness in elections, and for equal access to jobs, housing, restaurants, theatres, and hospital rooms. She was a plaintiff in five landmark court cases affecting civil rights, including the 1956 decision that ended school segregation in Arlington Virginia adjacent to Washington DC, the national capital. Her play, “Our Heritage: Slavery to Freedom, 1776–1976,” was designated an official bicentennial event by Arlington County.

A resolution passed by the Virginia House of Delegates in 2002 commended her, highlighting the historic nature of her accomplishments, and noted that she “was also a plaintiff in the cases that eliminated the pupil placement form, desegregated all athletics in the Arlington public schools, desegregated theaters in Arlington, and eliminated the poll tax.”

Hamm was an officer of elections in Arlington County for more than 27 years. She served as a delegate to Arlington County and state conventions of the Democratic Part in 1964. She was later appointed assistant registrar and a chief election officer in the Woodlawn precinct in Arlington. She worked with the Congrtess of Racial Equality as they organized in Arlington, and participated in the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington.
Hamm led the establishment of a Head Start Program in Arlington in the mid-1960s and taught there for several years.

Mrs. Hamm received the first Arlington County Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service in 1982 and a separate award from the Young Arlington Democrats for “Pioneering Civil Rights in Arlington.”

In 2018 the Dorothy Hamm Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, was named in her honor.

Sarah Collins

 Arlington Historian Sara Collins was beloved by all. She earned a BA from Albion College in 1951 and a Masters of Library Science from Catholic University in 1966. She enjoyed an illustrious career at Arlington County Public Library where she developed the local history collection and was instrumental in helping to establish the Arlington Community Archives, an extension of the Center for Local History. Collins also pioneered an oral history program at the Center which continues to provide researchers with information unavailable from other resources.

A resident of Northern Virginia for over sixty years, she served with numerous organizations including The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, The Arlington  Historical Society, Virginia Library Association, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, National Archives, the Northern Virginia Association of Historians, Arlington Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, the Oral History Association, the Arlington Bicentennial Committee, and the Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region association. She published articles, gave workshops and seminars, and held office.

In 1997, Sara received OHMAR’s Pogue Award for outstanding contributions to oral history. Sara was a member of Arlington United Methodist Church, where she served as librarian, led the sesquicentennial celebration, and played violin in the orchestra. She enjoyed Scottish country dancing, piano playing, community gardening, and attending concerts and plays.