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,
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
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,
(Note: The newspaper clipping was published in June
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
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
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
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
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
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
4. Senator Harris used
the term "paternal interest" in debate.
5. Congress recognized
quickly the plea of William Syphax for the relief of his
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.