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Maria Syphax was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and a maid of Martha

Washington. . . . Testimony of the descendants of Maria Syphax reveals that all of the older

 members of the family contacted have heard of the relationship mentioned frequently.

In the main they are reticent, but have no doubt of the actuality of the relationship.



Books by Sterling Brown

Southern Road / The Negro Caravan / The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown  /

The Negro in American Fiction; Negro Poetry and Drama  / Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems

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Books about Sterling Brown

Joanne,Gabbin. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1994)

John Edgar Tidwell, Sterling A. Brown's A Negro Looks at the South (2007)

Charles Rowell. Callaloo's Sterling A. Brown: Special Issue (1998)

Mark A. Sanders. Afro-Modernist Aesthetics & the Poetry of Sterling Brown (1999)

Mark A. Sanders. A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling Brown (1996)

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Sterling Brown to Henry Alsbery 

 Maria Syphax & George Washington Parke Custis

Memo 2 


April 10, 1939 


To:  Mr. Alsberg

From:  Sterling Brown

Subject:  Maria Syphax-George Washington Parke Custis relationship


This statement is not advanced as a complete argument establishing the relationship. Since my return to the Project I have been able to win the confidence of many descendants of Maria Syphax and I believe that I shall be able to turn up important contributing evidence.

1.     As stated earlier, the chief source for the statement was E. Delorus Preston's "William Syphax, a Pioneer in Negro Education in the District of Columbia," which appeared in The Journal of Negro History, Vol XX, No. 4, October, 1935.

Mr. Preston states: "Maria Syphax was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and a maid of Martha Washington." (p. 450.) He adduces as proof a newspaper clipping of June 1866 entitled "Colonel Custis's Daughter." This clipping, he states, is in the possession of Mrs. Ennis Syphax, who resides in Arlington on the plot spoken of below.

According to Mr. Preston, Maria Syphax was manumitted in or about 1826, together with two children, one a girl of six and the other a baby boy, William. Maria Syphax's Husband was not freed until after the death of Custis in 1857.

The newspaper clipping states that Custis recognized Maria as his child and gave her a piece of property on the Arlington estate. The family of Robert E. Lee :inherited the respect for the blood" of Maria E. Syphax and confirmed "the legacy of Custis by saying that the bit of land was hers although there was no deed to show the fact." (p. 452.)

In 1866, about forty years, William Syphax, Maria's son, sent to the Committee on private Land claims a "memorial . . . praying to be confirmed in his title of land in the Arlington estate . . . granted to his mother by the late George Washington Parke Custis." Senator Harris reported a bill "to release and confirm to Maria Syphax, her heirs and assigns," the title to the land.

In course of the debate Senator Harris said:

Mr. Custis, at the time she married about forty years feeling an interest in the woman, something perhaps akin to a paternal instinct, manumitted her, and gave her this piece of land.

The bill was passed, without amendment June 11, 1866, and was signed by President Andrew Johnson, June 12, 1866.

(Note: The newspaper clipping was published in June 1866.)

Mr. Preston writes:  "When one enters the Lee Mansion at Arlington Cemetery, and turns to the right and walks a few paces, he sees directly in front of him on the wall a map of the original plot, entitled, "Plan of Arlington Estate on Potomack River," bearing the diagram of the Syphax estate labelled "Maria Syphax."

2.     The report in the Congressional Globe of May 18, 1866, has Representaive Thayer enlarging upon the arguments of Senator Harris. Among other things he said:

 "Of course it was not customary for masters to give written titles to those who had been their slaves. But Maria Syphax has a possession extending through a period of forty years, founded upon a parole gift from the master who manumitted her . . .

"I believe now I have said everything which is necessary to a full understanding of the case, and perhaps something that was not . . . [The] grant . . . was always acquiesced in by those who succeeded him in the enjoyment of his estate."

[Most of the Custis' slaves were manumitted only after his death.]

Concluding his argument, he [Senator Harris] said: "The day of redemption for the land has passed, but the day of redemption for the countrymen of Syphax, King of Numidia, has come, never to pass away in the United States."

3.     Testimony of the descendants of Maria Syphax reveals that all of the older members of the family contacted have heard of the relationship mentioned frequently. In the main they are reticent, but have no doubt of the actuality of the relationship.

The widow of Ennis Syphax who owns the clipping is at present very ill and feeble, and has been able to help the investigation very little. There is some feeling of resentment at the investigators attempting to establish what they take for granted.

Some of the descendants point out the marked resemblance of pictures of Maria Syphax to pictures of Custis. A picture of Maria Syphax owned by a descendant, Mrs. Carrie Watson, is accessible. I may have a reproduction made. (A Mr. Williams, superintendent at the Arlington Cemetery, says that the pictures of Maria Syphax show a distinct likeness tot hose of George Washington Parke Custis.)

Oral tradition among the descendants has it that Maria Syphax was a favorite of the Lees and well as of Custis, that she was married in the parlor of the mansion, that her marriage to Charles Syphax, a darker Negro, was frowned upon by Custis. They think that the dislike for Charles persisted and was the chief cause why Custis would not set him free.

Some of the descendants state that the Lee family has always been friendly.

I am now able to make trips to Arlington, and to visit the descendants of Maria Syphax there and in Washington. because of the publicity attendant upon Congressman Keefe's charges, they seem readier to confide than they were earlier.

4.     The relationship has long been a matter of common belief among the Negroes of Washington. I am a native of the city, and heard the report years ago. It is the sort of thing taken for granted among Negroes. the more I read of southern social history and biographies, the more I can understand this attitude. There is a vast literature on the mixture of races, and much authoritative information comes from "patriotic" southerners.

Genealogy, of course, is proverbially a field where certainty is difficult. Even in a South where extra-familial relationships were more frequent than now, documentary proof of parentage was difficult to obtain. According to the novelist Isa Green, a member of the first families of Georgia, the gentlemen of the older school did not "forget to cover up."

But "notoriety of tradition is admissible as evidence." The family has long claimed the relationship. It has not been disputed. No newspaper quarrel or anything else, according to the best investigation we could make, followed the publication of "Colonel Custis's Daughter." Her unusual title to the land was confirmed by Congress with very little debate.

The name George Washington Parke Custis persists. Three grandsons of Maria Syphax are named respectively: Washington, Parke Custis, and Custis. The taking of masters name after emancipation was common; some slaves preferred them and some refused to have them. But the persistence in this family of the name is worthy of note. The family is firmly convinced. It might be added that the family does not speak of the relationship in a spirit of vainglory.


The statement in the essay that Maria Syphax was the colored daughter if George Washington Parke Custis was made for the following reasons:

1.     In a scholarly journal, edited by a historian who has the respect of important historians, an article appeared which made the statement and afforded as much proof as much statements are ever likely to get.

2.     Added investigation of the Congressional debate produced little new, but served to check Mr. Preston's accuracy, to show that the case was not debated at any length, but in somewhat gingerly manner, with certain phrases suggesting that there was more to the case than appeared on the surface.

3.     The testimony of relatives agreed upon the relationship.

4.     Common belief in Arlington and Washington is that the relationship is actual.

The facts that emerge are

1.     Maria Syphax was treated in an unusually generous manner by her master.

2.     She and her two children were freed in 1826, whereas her husband had to wait until Custis did before he received his freedom.

3.     A newspaper article was printed telling the story of Maria Syphax under the title: "Colonel Custis's Daughter."

4.     Senator Harris used the term "paternal interest" in debate.

5.     Congress recognized quickly the plea of William Syphax for the relief of his mother

6.     Maria Syphax's picture shows a very fair Negro woman, whose likeness to George Washington Parke Custis has been remarked by white people and by Negroes.

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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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