When Stephen Hammond was growing up, he scoffed when relatives told him he was related to the family of the nation’s first president, George Washington. It turns out, they were absolutely right.
“We’ve discovered many documents that have been written that have talked about the Washingtons and their connection to the Syphaxes,” Hammond explains.
The patriarch of the family, William Anderson Syphax, was a freed slave, born in 1773. His son, Charles Syphax, was a slave at Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington. Charles Syphax was among nearly 60 slaves inherited by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington. Charles Syphax eventually married a mulatto slave named Maria Carter Custis, the illegitimate daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and a slave maid. The powerful family remains active in the D.C. area, and has made many accomplishments in cities across the nation.
“I think the most important thing is that the Syphaxes have had a huge impact on the education of African-Americans in Washington, D.C.,” Hammond says. “I think the Syphaxes have had a tremendous impact on aspects of this country . . . and I think other (African-American) families do as well.”
Stephen Hammond and his cousin, Craig Syphax, are giving a presentation at the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Robert F. Smith Family Center on March 10 at 1 p.m. “From Mt. Vernon to Arlington House: A History of the Syphax Family in Slavery and Freedom,” will provide an intimate look into the family’s history and the impact they have made on the nation. The Center also features an interactive digital experience, Transitions in Freedom: The Syphax Family, which traces the history of African-American families from slavery to freedom through archival documents, maps and other records from the Freedmen’s Village, on land occupied today by Arlington National Cemetery.
“One of the goals I have as part of this event is to really try and inspire people to think about their own family histories and the stories that they have to tell,” Hammond says. “I think everybody’s got a story, and I think it is important that we try to more clearly tell the story of our families and how that has figured into the history of the country.”
The story of the Syphax family begins with Charles, born in 1790 or 1791. He was among dozens of slaves 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 Syphax was among the slaves taken to Custis’ plantation in Arlington, Virginia, and he helped supervise the construction of the huge mansion known as Arlington House, which still stands on the grounds of the cemetery. In 1821, Syphax married Maria Carter Custis, the illegitimate daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, and a slave named Airy Carter. Hammond notes that Maria had special privileges, including being married in the parlor of Arlington House just like her white half sister, Mary Anna Custis.
“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,” Hammond explains. “That was the first marriage that occurred in the house. It was unheard of to allow your enslaved staff to marry in the house. But clearly (he) had kind of a paternal connection with Maria based on his fatherhood there, and then his white daughter was married there in 1831 to Robert E. Lee.”
Charles and Maria Syphax had ten children, including William Syphax, born in 1825. Hammond says Custis sold Maria and her first two children to a Quaker apothecary shop owner in Alexandria, Virginia, who freed them. At around the same time, Custis gave Maria 17 acres at the south end of the Arlington estate. Charles remained a slave until being freed by Robert E. Lee after Custis’ death. The land was adjacent to what would soon become Freedmen’s Village, what was meant to be a refuge for freed slaves known as “contraband.” The land was confiscated from then owner Mary Custis Lee after she fled in 1861 to join Robert E. Lee, her husband, after the outbreak of the Civil War. Congress passed a law requiring that taxes be paid in person in 1863, and as Mary Lee was unable to appear, the federal government took the land and built Freedmen’s Village.
“There were Syphaxes that actually helped teach contraband, who lived there at the Freedmen’s Village, which remained open from about 1863 to almost 1900. During that time there were many attempts to close it because it was really intended to be only a temporary village for people to transition from being enslaved to becoming free and being able to find work in other places,” Hammond says.
But when the government confiscated Mary Custis Lee’s land, it also took the 17 acres belonging to Maria Syphax, Hammond explains, because there was no documentation showing that the property had been given to Syphax.
“So they were considered squatters at the time and until about 1866, when their oldest son William basically worked with people he knew in Congress to help . . . bring a bill to the floor that would give the property back to Maria Syphax. It was voted upon and signed by (president) Andrew Johnson, which is amazing,” Hammond says, adding that by then William Syphax was an adult working at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In arguing for the “Bill for the Relief of Maria Syphax,” on May 18, 1866, Senator Ira Harris spoke at a second hearing on the title request. The Chair of the Committee on Private Land Claims, asked upon what grounds the bill was placed, explained that the bill was on behalf of a mulatto woman who was once the slave of Mr. (George Washington Parke) Custis.
“Mr. Custis, at the time she married about 40 years ago, feeling an interest in the woman, something perhaps akin to a paternal interest . . . gave her this piece of land,” Harris said according to The Congressional Globe. “It has been set apart for her and it has been occupied by her and her family for 40 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.”
Stephen Hammond says the family was deeply involved in Freedmen’s Village, with the oldest daughter Elinor working as a seamstress and teaching others there how to sew. Maria’s son John was an advocate for the poor on the property. In the late 1880s, when the government was trying to close Freedmen’s Village, John Syphax was elected to a committee to petition the government.
“He was asked to represent the people of Freedmen’s Village when the conditions there were getting pretty bad. . . . It basically was a slum, lots of lowland, lots of wet places, and John was in a party of several other people who went to the Secretary of War,” Hammond explains.
John Syphax wrote a letter to the Secretary in 1888, asking that the freed people there be compensated for the improvements they had made to the property, closing the letter: “Twenty-four years of residence at Arlington, with all the elements involved in this case, inspire the hope that full and ample justice will be done even to the weakest members of this great republic.”
The federal government eventually compensated the residents $75,000–the appraised value of the dwellings on the property and the contraband-fund tax that had been collected during the Civil War–when it finally closed Freedmen’s Village in 1900.
Both William and John Syphax went on to illustrious careers, with the former eventually being appointed as chairman of the D.C. Board of Trustees of Colored Public Schools. In 1870, he organized a college preparatory high school in the basement of a D.C. church that later became Dunbar High School, one of the nation’s most prestigious African-American schools. John Syphax served as a justice of the peace in the Arlington Magisterial District, and was elected delegate to the Virginia General Assembly. There are still many Syphaxes working in federal government in Washington to this day.
“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 says. He ticks off a litany of names, from the legendary Howard University surgeon Dr. Burke “Mickey” Syphax, to Rep. Julian Dixon (D-CA.), to activist-entrepreneur Tracey Syphax, recognized in an Obama-era White House program called “Champions of Change.”
Hollis Gentry, a genealogist at the African American History Museum’s Family Research Center, says one of the reasons the Syphax family is featured in the interactive digital exhibition Transitions in Freedom: The Syphax Family, is that she wanted to focus on people to help illustrate the importance of the Freedmen’s Bureau records the museum has been working with.
“It’s not just about the Freedmen’s Bureau it’s about a family,” Gentry explains. “That’s why it’s called ‘Transitions and Freedom’ because their transition is documented as well. The way in which they’re functioning even in the Freemen’s Bureau is as formerly enslaved people, those who are in transition. So we have the documentation of different members of the family in different states and different stages of freedom or enslavement so what better story? And then we have living descendants.”
The last part, Gentry says, is particularly cool because she is accustomed to working with documents. It is also great because now the African American History Museum, Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon have been able to get together to find pieces of the Syphax story. Gentry says that means not only can interested people go see documentation of this family at all of those venues; it might inspire other families to begin their own journeys for their pasts.
“When you think of the Syphax story, it connects to the beginning of our nation’s history,” Gentry says. “It connects to the first family and there’s documentation from the very beginning and it is not simply based on speculation. And we can interact with their descendants who have been leaders in the community. They didn’t just sit back and enjoy the fruits of that connection to a prominent white family. They turned around and helped their fellow freedmen.”
“From Mt. Vernon to Arlington House: A History of the Syphax Family in Slavery and Freedom,” begins at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 10, at the African American Museum’s Robert F. Smith Family History Center.