Arlington’s Oldest Families
Their ancestors came here centuries ago, some by choice and others by force.
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.”