The story of the Syphax family starts with Charles Syphax. Born around 1790, Charles was the son of an enslaved woman at Mount Vernon and a free Black preacher, William Anderson Syphax. Charles was a slave at Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington before being inherited by George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson by her first marriage.
Custis was raised by Martha and George Washington as their adopted son. Charles would become one of fifty-seven enslaved people who came to Arlington from Mount Vernon with Custis in 1802. In Arlington, Virginia, Charles helped supervise the construction of the huge mansion known as Arlington House. By 1821, Charles had married Maria Carter Custis, the illegitimate daughter of Custis and a slave named Airy Carter.
The two got married in the parlor of Arlington House, ten years before Custis’s white daughter, Mary, would wed Lt. Robert E. Lee in the same room. At the time, marriage between enslaved individuals was not prohibited even though such a marriage would not receive any legal recognition. With the couple considered property, their owners could separate them at any time by selling one or both away. What’s more, their children become the property of their owners.
It is therefore not surprising that Custis allowed Maria and Charles to marry. Reports also said Maria had special privileges. “I think he (George Washington Parke Custis) was known to have treated them very well. I think that she had some of the comforts of being able to work at the mansion. I think she was probably the servant to George Washington Parke Custis’ white daughter… and so she had it much easier than those who were actually working the plantation,” Steve Hammond, the great-great-great-great grandson of William Anderson Syphax, explained to Smithsonian Magazine.
Still, after their marriage, Maria continued to work as a maid to her half-sister Mary Custis while Charles worked in the dining room. Four years later, Custis sold Maria and the first two children she had with Charles to Edward Stabler, a Quaker apothecary in Alexandria. Stabler freed Maria and her children, and it was around this period that Custis gave Maria 17 acres at the south end of the Arlington estate. There, she and Charles had eight more children, who were all born free. Charles remained enslaved until being freed in 1862 by Robert E. Lee after Custis’ death.
When Custis died in 1857, he left the house to his only surviving legitimate child, Mary Custis, who had married Robert E. Lee. Custis made it known in his will that all his slaves should be freed by 1862. In 1863, the government declared official emancipation. “At that time is when the government noticed that these slaves were just standing around, loitering on people’s property at this time,” recounts Craig Syphax, Charles’ fourth-generation grandson. “And so they said, ‘we need to structure something for these people.’”
The government went on to establish “Freedman’s Village” on part of the Arlington House estate, which it had seized in 1864 when Mary Custis Lee did not appear at the county courthouse to pay her taxes. Freedman’s Village, which had a hospital, churches, and a market, became home to over a thousand freed slaves. “Maria and her family were involved in the activities of the Freedman’s Village, teaching skills such as sewing, and acting as advocates on behalf of individuals to petition the government for assistance,” NPS writes.
The Syphax family were at the time still living on the plot Custis had given Maria in the 1820s, but Custis did not leave any official documentation showing that the property had been given to Maria. So when the government seized Arlington House in 1864, it also took the 17 acres belonging to Maria until her son, William, stepped in. William, who served as Chief Messenger for the U.S. Department of the Interior, made Congress aware of the issue. He argued that his mother should be allowed to keep her property, and authorities listened. In 1866, President Andrew Johnson signed the ‘Bill for the Relief of Maria Syphax’, a move that was considered as “an early civil-rights triumph”, according to WAMU.
The land remained with the Syphax family until it was sold in 1901. Indeed, many of Maria’s children became leaders in the local community. William was appointed the first chairman of the DC Board of Trustees of Colored Public Schools and established Dunbar High School, the first Black high school in the District of Columbia. His brother John Syphax served as justice of the peace of the Arlington Magisterial Board before being elected delegate to the Virginia General Assembly.
Today, scores of Syphax descendants have worked in the federal government in Washington, served honorably in the military, and taught at prestigious universities while advocating for social justice freedom. “There are a number of Syphaxes that attended Howard University, and went on to other prestigious universities in the country. Others have gone on to do some pretty amazing things in this area,” Hammond told Smithsonian Magazine, mentioning the likes of activist-entrepreneur Tracey Syphax and well-known Howard University surgeon Dr. Burke “Mickey” Syphax.