Arlington’s Oldest Families
Their ancestors came here centuries ago, some by choice and others by force.
Parks, the Gravedigger
In Arlington National Cemetery, up a small hill in a grove of tall oak trees, is a grave marker dedicated to James Parks. The epitaph plainly describes the tomb’s occupant as a slave and an “interesting, respectful, kindly old Negro.” But Nauck resident Tamara Moore has come to discover there’s more to her great-grandfather’s legacy than those few words. “You get to a place in life and something is awakened in you,” says Moore, who began researching her family’s past in 2011. “So, you pursue it.”
According to Moore’s research, James Parks entered the world on March 19, 1843, one of 11 children born to Lawrence and Patsy Clark Parks as slaves on the Custis-Lee Plantation (the main residence, Arlington House, is now a historic site on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery). At the time, the property was owned by Martha Washington’s grandson (and George Washington’s adopted son) George Washington Parke Custis.
As a field slave, Parks rarely saw the insides of the mansion, but he would often see Custis emerge to play his fiddle for dances down by the river. When Custis died in 1857 (Parks was then 14), his will declared that all of his slaves should be freed, provided his estate was in good financial standing. But it wasn’t. Parks remained a slave for another five years under Custis’ son-in-law, Robert E. Lee.
Parks was freed in 1862, but would remain at Arlington House for the rest of his life. After Lee joined the Confederacy, the Union Army annexed the plantation, converting 200 acres of it into a military cemetery in 1864. At that point, Parks was hired to become the first gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery. As an employee of the War Department, he dug graves, performed maintenance work and helped to construct nearby Forts McPherson and Whipple (which later became Fort Myer).
In 1928, Congress authorized a memorial to Gen. Lee, and restoration work began on Arlington House. By then, Parks was 85, had married twice and reportedly fathered 22 children. He became the leading expert on the restoration, providing accounts as to the original location of wells, slave quarters, the dance pavilion, old roads and the slave cemetery. A Marine Corps officer described him as “the one infallible authority on everything connected with the history of the estate.”
Later that year, journalist Enoch Chase began a letter-writing campaign to convince the secretary of war to allow Parks, upon his death, to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. In a note to Parks, whom Chase referred to as “Uncle Jim,” Chase wrote that the U.S. government “has seen fit to honor you in a way that no other man outside of the forces of the Army and Navy may claim to be honored in this day and generation…When the Lord and Master of us all sees fit to call you home, you shall lie down and rest in the place where you were born…”
James Parks died a few months later and was laid to rest in section 15E, grave 2, with full military honors—a ritual extremely rare for a non-service member.
Meanwhile, his lineage prospered in Arlington. One of his sons, Robert E. Parks, moved to the corner of Columbia Pike and South Rolfe Street, where he ran three businesses—a restaurant, a beauty salon and a barbershop.
“That barbershop was a staple of the community,” says Moore, now 67, who spent Saturdays there, working her grandfather’s cash register, before taking a job with the Department of the Army. (She later retired from the Pentagon after 34 years.) Her mother, Jestine, 89, James Parks’ only living granddaughter, is also a former government employee and still lives in Arlington.
Moore says her research has given her a whole new perspective. “[James Parks] was more than just a slave and more than just a gravedigger,” she says. “He was my great-grandfather.”
Shreves and Smiths
Occupying the second floor of the Penrose Square building on Columbia Pike, the real-estate development company BM Smith has come a long way since 1908, when local farmer and entrepreneur Benjamin Matthew Smith founded his eponymous home-building enterprise—one that, according to Arlington Economic Development, qualifies as Arlington’s longest-running business.
“Our family farm was right up there,” says president David Peete, the founder’s grandson, pointing up the Pike toward Courthouse Road. “All of this…is part of who we are.” But the family’s roots in Arlington actually date much farther back—all the way to the founding of America.
In 1775, war broke out across the colonies and Samuel Shreve, a Quaker, left his home in New Jersey to join the state militia with two of his brothers. Shreve soon earned a reputation as a brave and disciplined soldier, rising to the ranks of lieutenant colonel. He made such an impression on his superior, Gen. George Washington that, according to family lore, Washington would later give the young soldier an inside tip. When the Compromise of 1790 called for the nation’s capital to move from Philadelphia to the banks of the Potomac, Gen. Washington was charged with charting the exact location of the 10-square-mile site. Realizing his decisions would have an impact on land values, Washington reportedly recommended that Shreve buy land on the Virginia side—which is exactly what he did, purchasing 259 acres of farmland in the areas that now encompass the neighborhoods of Bluemont, Barcroft and Ballston.
Soon after, negotiations over taxes shifted the capital’s footprint to the Maryland side of the river, leaving Shreve high and dry. Says Peete: “I like to say that we are part of the first lost real-estate deal in American history.” But the Shreves nevertheless prospered. The 259 acres that Samuel Shreve had purchased extended from Lubber Run to Four Mile Run, making his heirs one of the largest land-owning families in Arlington.
In 1853, Julia Shreve was born and raised on the land her grandfather had bought. Several miles down the road, near Annandale, Toronto-born Henry William Smith had come to the U.S. to help his father establish a dairy farm. It’s unclear how the boy with the funny accent and the girl with auburn hair met, but fate brought them together. “That immigrant from Canada married an old blue blood,” Peete says. They married at Dulin Chapel in Falls Church (which is still located at 513 E. Broad St.) on Feb. 25, 1879, and moved to a farmhouse near what is now the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road.
Henry Smith continued to farm and ran a small coal business until 1894, when he made a career change. With $350, he purchased two horses, a 10-passenger wagonette and 10 blankets, and opened the Arlington Transfer Co.—thought to be Arlington’s first “tour bus service.” Picking up passengers at the Fort Myer Post Chapel, he—and later, other family members—would shuttle them along Columbia Pike and into the District, pointing out sights such as the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery. Henry’s grandson Ben Smith Jr. loves to tell of the time the company got a complaint letter from the cemetery about the tour guides’ language: “[They] were a little rough, so to speak.”
After World War I, Arlington Transfer Co. upgraded to motor buses before ending its operations in the late 1920s. In 1908, Henry and Julia’s son Benjamin Matthew Smith opened his real estate company at the age of 24. Some 15 years later, he moved his home and offices to the 2400 block of Columbia Pike (currently the site of Rappahannock Coffee), just across the street from the building that BM Smith, still family-owned and operated, occupies today. Stop by and you’ll usually find a couple family members working there, including the founder’s son, Ben Smith Jr., now 88. “It’s our hometown,” Peete says. “We’ve stayed connected. The whole family is represented here.”
The Syphax Legacy
Evelyn Reid Syphax was a local teacher during the racially segregated 1950s and went on to become chairman of the Arlington School Board in the early 1980s. A glass-ceiling-shattering entrepreneur and social justice advocate, she also founded the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington (on Columbia Pike near Walter Reed Drive) in 1994.
“Not only was she my mother,” says her son Craig, the museum’s current president, “she was my mentor, my consciousness and the inspiration to continue [digging] into our family’s history.” Since her death in 2000, Craig and his cousin Stephen Hammond have found that Evelyn wasn’t the only Syphax whose legacy looms large.
The name “Syphax” apparently comes from royalty. In the late 18th century, so the story goes, a family ancestor, one “William Anderson,” was told that he looked like the ruler of an ancient North African kingdom, King Syphax. So, he adopted the name.
A manumission deed suggests that William Anderson Syphax was born around 1773 and was given his freedom in 1817, when he was 44. At that point, Syphax made it his mission to amass enough money to buy the freedom of his wife and children. Traveling across the country and into Canada, he solicited nearly $1,800 (the equivalent of about $40,000 today) from wealthy abolitionists, including Alexandria’s well-known apothecary owner Edward Stabler. With that funding, Syphax was able to emancipate his wife and seven of his daughters, though he was unable to buy freedom for all of his children (research suggests there were nine). One of those was his son Charles.
According to family records, Charles Syphax was born at Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate owned by our nation’s first president. Charles was 10 when George Washington Parke Custis (the grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of George Washington) moved him to the Custis-Lee estate (aka Arlington House) and appointed him one of the heads of the household. That’s where Charles fell in love with a young, light-skinned girl named Maria, who had been conceived in an illicit relationship between Custis and his grandmother’s maid, Arianna Carter.
Research suggests Custis had dozens of other children with slaves, but Maria seems to have been the only one he treated as a daughter, allowing her to play and learn with his white children.
In 1821, Charles and Maria were wed by an Episcopal minister inside Arlington House, a decade before Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna, would tie the knot in the same spot with a young Robert E. Lee. “They were married in the same place,” says Hammond. “That always gives me goosebumps.”
Custis continued to give Maria opportunities not afforded to other slaves. A few years after her wedding, he sold Maria to Edward Stabler (the same abolitionist who had helped her father-in-law years earlier). Acting on an agreement with Custis, Stabler immediately freed Maria and her children.
Around the same time, Custis gave Maria 17 acres of land at the southwest end of his property so that she could remain close to her husband (who would not be freed until 1862). It’s there that Maria raised her 10 children, according to a 1935 book about the family, in “a white cottage…surrounded by tall trees and pleasant stretches of grassland.”
Custis died in 1857 and Lee would ultimately join the Confederacy, vacating the estate during the Civil War. In 1864, the U.S. government seized the property, including Maria’s 17 acres. Though she had lived there for nearly five decades, she had no documented proof that she owned the land.
Languishing as a perceived squatter on her own property and facing the prospect of eviction, Maria was in dire straits until her son William (yes, another William), an Interior Department employee, brought the matter to Congress’ attention. A short time later, with “little delay and no debate,” both the House and the Senate passed the “Bill for the Relief of Maria Syphax,” providing the legal means for her to claim ownership of her home in Arlington. On June 12, 1866, the bill was signed into law by President Andrew Johnson.
Maria Syphax’s descendants went on to become lawyers, educators, government officials, public advocates for the poor, and even a member of the Virginia House of Delegates—accomplishments that surely would have made the matriarch proud. “My goal is to educate my family about the stock we come from,” says her great-great nephew Hammond, who recently retired from the U.S. Geological Survey. “Maria’s story is really powerful.”
Birches and Thomases
“[My mother] always said the two greatest places on earth were Charlottesville and Arlington,” says Johnathan Thomas, president of the Arlington Historical Society and a ninth-generation Arlingtonian whose ancestors, over three centuries, have served as judges, public servants, local business owners and county board members. “Charlottesville is where she met my dad… but she fell in love with Arlington.”
Thomas’ genealogical research suggests that his family was in this area long before the Declaration of Independence. In the late 17th century, a group of Birches departed the English shores and settled on the southeast coast of Virginia. They later moved north, amassing land in what are now Fairfax and Arlington counties.
In 1770, Joseph Birch married Englishwoman Janet Bowmaker Robertson, daughter of sea captain James Robertson, a major land owner. The couple eventually inherited more than 3,280 acres in the areas that now make up Lyon Park, Columbia Gardens and Washington Golf & Country Club. Thomas estimates that at one point his forebears owned about one-fifth of the land that comprises Arlington County today.
Flash forward a generation or two and a family legend puts the Birches at the center of a historical footnote. As the cloud of civil war loomed, Randolph Birch, a grandson of Joseph Birch, lived on and owned a farm near the site of today’s Iwo Jima Memorial—making him a neighbor of the Arlington estate occupied by then-Col. Robert E. Lee. In the spring of 1861, Lee was contemplating a decision that would define history: Accept President Lincoln’s offer to command the Union Army, or remain loyal to his native Virginia and join the Confederacy.
The story goes that Lee was riding up and down his property on his horse (the famous “Traveller”) when he approached his neighbor’s fence. “Birch,” he said, “I’ve decided to fight with Virginia.”
“It makes sense that your next-door neighbor would be the first to know,” says Thomas, whose family artifacts dating back to this period include the brass dinner bell from Randolph Birch’s farm, and a picnic basket that his great-great-grandmother Margaret carried with her to the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas. (At the time, spectators expected the conflict between North and South to be short-lived; little did they realize the war would drag on for four long years and kill hundreds of thousands.)
In 1902, Birch’s grandson Harry R. Thomas married Julia Veitch at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church on Glebe Road (the same church where Johnathan Thomas would wed his wife, Leslie, 114 years later). Harry became the first of three consecutive county judges in the family.
Then came that fateful day in 1946, when Harry’s son, Harry Lee Thomas, a star football player at the University of Virginia, ended up at University Hospital in Charlottesville with an injured shoulder. Lois Johnston, a young X-ray technician, “thought he was a flirt and didn’t want to finish the job,” Johnathan Thomas laughs. “The head nurse said, ‘You get back in there and finish it.’ ” The couple married in 1954 and had four boys, including the youngest, Johnathan, in 1960.
Lois died six years ago and is buried alongside her husband at Columbia Gardens Cemetery on Arlington Boulevard—a resting place co-owned by other members of the Thomas clan. “She thought she was the lucky one,” Thomas says of his mom’s feelings toward his father, “but I’d say he was the lucky one.”