The story of the Syphax family, whose name traces back to African royalty, is one of anything but defeat. Despite the oppression of slavery and racism, theirs is a legacy of great prestige, accomplishment, and perseverance. They have played extremely significant roles in the religious, social, educational, and civil advancement of African American communities in Arlington County. In fact, the impact of this family is still felt in Arlington today.
The first influential member of the family was a man named Charles Syphax. The son of a free black preacher and an enslaved woman, he was born at Mount Vernon, the home of his mother’s owners, Martha and George Washington. Virginia law at the time decreed that the status of all children reflect the condition of the mother, thus Charles spent the formative years of his life in bondage. As a young adult, he worked as a house slave, which meant that he knew the Washingtons and their grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, very well. When the former president died in 1799, Charles and 56 other individuals were inherited by G.W. P. Custis, who eventually relocated them to his plantation called Arlington. There, Charles quickly became the acknowledged leader of the black community.(1)
Slavery demoralized many African Americans, but Charles Syphax refused to allow physical subjugation to repress his mind or rob him of his self-respect. Under his capable direction, the “Arlington people” completed the north wing of Custis’s new home in 1802, the south wing in 1804, and the elaborate, two-story “middle house” with its grand portico in 1818.(2) Once the construction projects ended, Charles became supervisor of the formal dining room. His appointment to this high status position clearly indicated the trust placed in him by his owner. Although not his most significant life role, being the Custis butler opened a door to and for future Syphax generations.(3)
Charles’s wife, Maria, also held a position of some status at Arlington. She was a maid, which meant that she was always in close contact with the Custis family. Her mother was Airy Carter, a Mount Vernon house slave, and her father may have been George Washington Parke Custis. This would explain why in 1826 she and her children, Elinor and William Syphax, received from Custis not only their freedom but a seventeen and one-half acre plot of land located in the southwest portion of the Arlington estate.(4) While living on this property, Maria and Charles–who remained a slave–went on to have eight more children, all of whom lived as free people on the estate.(5) The Alexandria County Register of Free Negroes for 1858 lists most of the free blacks living in the area at the time, including the ones at Arlington. The children of Charles and Maria Syphax appear on it, along with their ages and occupations.(6) There is little doubt but that Maria instilled in them all a strong sense of family pride and history.
This sense of pride helped the Syphaxes survive the turmoil of the Civil War and Reconstruction. When the war broke out in 1861, Arlington’s then owner, Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, left the estate for what she hoped would be only a few weeks. The Syphaxes, like most of “the Arlington people,” stayed behind and continued to care for the property long after Union troops occupied it. Charles, who received his freedom in 1862, also played a significant role at Freedman’s Village, a community for free and escaped slaves that the federal government established on Arlington’s grounds.(7) In 1864 the Syphax family’s security was threatened, however. A special wartime tax law required that all property owners pay their taxes in person. When Mary Custis Lee failed to appear at the county courthouse, federal officials took title to the 1,100 acre Arlington plantation. Since Maria Syphax had no written proof of ownership, her 17.5 acres were seized, too. In response, William Syphax quickly presented a “memorial” on his mother’s behalf to the Government’s Private Land Claims Committee.(8) He argued persuasively that “we have a claim on this estate . . .” [get full quote & source]. Consequently, a senator who sat on the committee introduced into Congress a bill for the relief of Maria Syphax. In his speech, the senator made the following remarks: “Maria Syphax, a mulatto, was once the slave of George W.P. Custis. Mr. Custis, at the time she married, about forty years ago, feeling an interest in the woman, something perhaps akin to a paternal instinct, manumitted her, and gave her a piece of land. It had been set apart to her and it has been occupied by her and her family for forty years. Under the circumstances, the Committee thought it no more than just, the Government having acquired title to this property under a sale for taxes, that this title should be confirmed to her.”(9) On June 11, 1866, Congress approved the act for the relief of Maria Syphax and President Andrew Johnson signed it the following day.(10) It was a significant success not only for the Syphax family but for African Americans in general; it showed that they could stand up for their civil rights and win.
William Syphax went on to become a prominent figure in the local African American community. Educated first at Arlington, in his early teens he attended private schools in Alexandria and in Washington, D.C.(11) Because of his literacy, William was able to secure work in the Secretary of the Interior’s office, where he rose to the position of Chief Messenger. In this capacity, he developed contacts with many government officials and won deep respect for his abilities and intellect.(12) In 1868, he was appointed to the D.C. Board of Trustees of Colored Public Schools, where he served a total of three years, two as chairman and one as treasurer. Public respect made him widely sought in several different aspects of civic and racial advancement and as a large contributor to schools for black children. In 1870 he organized a college preparatory high school in the basement of a D.C. Presbyterian church. It later became Dunbar High School, one of the country’s most prestigious African American schools.(13) He also cofounded a Baptist church, and gave his services as a minister for twenty years.
A man of strong character and integrity, William Syphax strove to create equality between the races and relentlessly challenged policies that he felt were unjust. He was a vocal advocate for the desegregation of public schools, for example, and promoted the integration of residential communities.(14) He was a principled, driven man who fought for the civil liberties and the common respect African Americans deserved. He died on June 15, 1891, at the age of sixty-six.(15) Another of Charles and Maria’s children also achieved an unusual level of success. John B. Syphax was born free in 1842 and received his education in the Washington D.C. public schools. As an adult, he was a landowner in Arlington County and held many elected offices under the Republican Party banner. These included justice of the peace of the Arlington Magisterial District and delegate to the Virginia General Assembly. His achievements, like those of his brother, William, were pioneering in the fact that they helped pave the way for future generations of black Arlingtonians.(16)
Another family member who helped to create and expand opportunities for blacks was Evelyn Syphax. Born Evelyn Reid in Lynchburg, Virginia, she was the youngest of three sisters. She graduated from high school in 1943 and earned a B.A. in English from Virginia Union University in 1948. After teaching in Lynchburg for several years, she moved to Arlington, where she married Archie D. Syphax, a grandson of Charles and Maria’s, and raised two boys, Archie Jr. and Craig. A dedicated educator, Evelyn Syphax earned her Masters degree in Early Childhood Education from N.Y.U. in 1954 and continued her teaching career in the Arlington County public school system.(17) She especially believed in the importance of enrichment classes such as creative writing, drama, and debate. Since Arlington did not provide a preschool system for African-American youths, Evelyn launched the Syphax Child Care Center in 1963. She also started the first Montessori School program in the county. As a result of her passion and creativity, she received several awards and accolades in the area of child development. In 1972 she retired after twenty-one years of service to the public school system.(18)
Like other Syphaxes, Evelyn had many interests. A religious woman and an active member of Mount Olive Baptist Church, she held many positions in her church community and received awards based on her outstanding dedication and service to it. For many years, she invested in real estate and developed residential housing in Northern Virginia. In 1973, she opened El Derlee, a residential home for senior citizens, because of her deep concern for the elderly.(19) One of the most significant things she did was to fight for and to achieve in 1995 the placement of an historic marker for Freedman’s Village.(20) She struggled to shed light on one of the least understood aspects of the Civil War–slavery–and the role that Freedman’s Village played in the development of the county. The importance of recognizing Freedmen’s Village was just that–recognizing it. Likewise, slavery remains a topic seldom addressed at historic sites. Until recently, local museums treated it as if it never existed, yet many of Virginia’s founding fathers were once slave owners, especially George Washington, George Mason, and Thomas Jefferson. The marker for Freedman’s Village will hopefully encourage awareness that slavery is a part of this country’s history and that it is important to educate adults as well as children of its repercussions. At the marker dedication ceremony, Evelyn Syphax declared: “We’re going to make sure that people learn about this through many different avenues.”(21)
In fact, Evelyn Syphax had a much broader vision regarding Freedman’s Village. Shortly after this event, she organized a group of volunteers dedicated to the establishment of an African American history museum. This group eventually coalesced into the board of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington. Founding this institution, over which her son, Craig Syphax, now presides, was perhaps Evelyn’s greatest achievement as an educator and community leader. The story of the Syphax family’s journey from slavery to freedom helps remove the ignorance about African American history that has plagued and still plagues our society. The achievements of its members going back to Charles and Maria Syphax and leading all the way up to the present should inspire people of all races and religions. Such courage and devotion to community should be marveled at and praised. Theirs is truly a remarkable legacy.
1) Mark Jones, “The Syphax Family” in Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial
3) D.E. Abbott, “The Land of Maria Syphax and the Abbott Mausoleum” Arlington Historical Magazine 7, no. 4 (date), 67.
4) D. Priest, “Arlington bequest a Footnote in Black History,” The Washington Post (27 Feb. 1990), B5.
5) Abbot, 65.
6) W. Pippenger, “Alexandria County Register of Free Negroes, 1858,” www.freedman’scemetery.org/Dennee_Pages/Register.html (1 Dec. 2002).
7) Abbott, 67.
8) Abbot, 64.
9) Priest, B5.
10) Abbot, 66.
11) Evelyn Syphax, “William Syphax-Community Leader,” Arlington Historical Magazine 6, no. 1 (1977), 42-44.
12) Abbot, 69.
13) Syphax, 44.
14) Abbot, 69.
15) Evelyn Syphax, “William Syphax,” (1992), Syphax Family Biography, Syphax Family File, Vertical Files, Virginia Room, Arlington County Public Library.
16) Abbot, 79.
17) Evelyn Syphax, “A True Advocate and Champion,” Syphax Family Biography, Syphax Family File, Vertical Files, Virginia Room, Arlington County Public Library.
20) N. Rao, “Freedman’s Village Marker Placed,” The Northern Virginia Sun, C2, Syphax Family File, Vertical Files, Virginia Room, Arlington County Public Library.
21) Ibid., C1.