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Charles, it seems, had considerable liberty, for although he was not freed until after the death of Custis,

he was a member, in good standing, of a Baptist Church in Alexander, of which the Rev. Wm. Madden

was pastor. Inasmuch as he belonged to the Custis family at Arlington, he was full

of recollections of the early presidents and statesmen . . . .

Charles Syphax                                                                                                                              William Syphax



Excerpts of

William Syphax: A Pioneer 

in Negro Education in the District of Columbia

By E. Delorus Preston, Jr


[William] Syphax [1825-1891] was born shortly after the troublous days of the Missouri Compromise; he witnessed the growing hatred and sectional discords that resulted in the Compromise of 1850; he saw the devastating effects of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the Dred Scott Decision, the John Brown Raid, and lived through the hectic days of disunion, civil war and subsequent reconstruction.

Through it all he had an abiding faith in his people, and at every possible opportunity he evinced a manliness and a fortitude in his efforts to champion their cause. He was honest, courageous, thrifty in all his dealings and never descended from his lofty pedestal.

William Syphax was the offspring of a distinguished line. His grandfather, William Syphax, was a free Negro, who lived on Fairfax Street, in Alexandria, Virginia. The house in which he lived had at one time been the office of William Herbert, a leading citizen of Alexandria and a descendant of Carlyle.

He lived near the old bank of Alexandria and was constantly on the ground of the Carlyle House, over which the Braddock House was afterward built. the elder Syphax was well versed in the prophetical portions of the Scriptures, and ever and anon he was wont to stand on the street corners and preach his doctrines to passersby. He was quite a character in Alexandria and was "very industrious and much respected."

Charles Syphax [1791-1869], the only son of William, was a slave and he belonged to George Washington Parke Custis [1781-1857], who owned Arlington, Virginia, and its environs. When about ten years of age [1801] he accompanied George Washington Parke Custis to Arlington, where he grew up with Custus' daughter Mary, who later married Genereal R.E. Lee.

Syphax became enamored of one Maria Carter [1803-1886] while working as one of the "White House" servants whose duties were confined to the serving of meals in the Arlington Mansion, and they were married at Arlington by an Episcopal minister, about 1821. By this marriage Elinor was born 1823, and William 1825.

Charles, it seems, had considerable liberty, for although he was not freed until after the death of Custis, he was a member, in good standing, of a Baptist Church in Alexander, of which the Rev. Wm. Madden was pastor. Inasmuch as he belonged to the Custis family at Arlington, he was full of recollections of the early presidents and statesmen, and his memory was stored with anecdotes of those he met there, and who were in the habit of conversing with him.

He was was acquainted with George Washington and gave vivid accounts of Jefferson, Monroe, and others. It is said that during the Civil War, soldiers camped around his residence, too great delight in listening to his vivid descriptions of the past. he was well liked by all regardless of color and was considered a good Christian. He died in 1869 at the ripe old age of seventy eight.

On his mother's side William Syphax descended not only from a distinguished line but his ancestry savored very definitely of the plantation aristocracy of the South.

Maria Syphax was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and a maid of Martha Washington. George Washington Parke Custis, and he was lord of the Arlington estate of 1,110 acres.

In the treatment of his slaves Custis is said to have been as considerate as he was regarding any other class of human beings, and the glaring evils of iniquitous slavery were never apparent on his property. Each slave had a house apportioned him and a bit of ground, the produce of which he owned as "securely as if his title to the land he occupied was duly recorded in the records of the county courts."

Particularly was this true as regarded his female servants for whom he seemed to show an interest out of all proportion to those motives actuated by humanitarian impulses. He freed Louisa, the daughter of his servant Judith, on the 5th of April, 1803; John, the son of Judith; the children of Olney, in 1818. In our about 1826 Custis manumitted Maria, who at the time had two children, Elinor, six years of age, and William, "a baby boy." Her two children were freed along with her, though her husband, Charles, seems not to have received his freedom until after the death of Custis, who left a will manumitting all his slaves.

It is stated, however, that Custis recognized Maria as his child and gave her a piece of property on the Arlington estate. This piece of land constituted 15 acres off the northwest corner of the Arlington estate and "her white cottage was surrounded by tall trees and pleasant stretches of grassland and the place was beautiful as well as homelike."

It is also stated that "the family of Robert E. Lee inherited the respect for the blood of the former slave woman, and they (the wife of Robert E. Lee was the daughter of Custis and the half-sister Maria Syphax) confirmed the legacy of Custis by saying that the bit of land was hers although there was no deed to show the fact." William Syphax, therefore, came from a distinguished line.

Charles and Maria spent their entire lives on that plot of land and besides the two children previously mentioned eight others were born and reared there. They were Cornelius, Charles, Colbert, Shaulter, Austin, John, Ennis and Maria. All lived to maturity, and all except Shaulter and Austin had families.

The ever-increasing hatreds, part feuds and sectional discords over the slavery issue resulted in the Civil War, and the Arlington Estate was necessarily affected. Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate forces while his family left the grounds. Federal troops occupied Arlington from the first days of the war and had many personal contacts with the Syphaxes.

On August 5, 1861, the Government had passed the Direct Tax Act. Inasmuch as Virginia was in "open rebellion" against the United States, the Federal Government realized the impossibility of collecting the taxes. The government then decided that when the civil authority in any State was so obstructed, due to the insurrection, as to prostrate the peaceful collection of the direct tax, that the tax apportioned should be charged or apportioned in each insurrectionary district upon all lands and lots of ground according to the enumeration and valuation of the last assessment preceding the breaking out of the War.

The Act was amended in 1863, and from November 21, 1863, to January 10, 1864, the sale of the Arlington Estate was advertised in a Virginia newspaper. on the 11th of January, 1864, the Arlington Estate of 1,100 acres was purchased by the Government for $26,100, and the cemetery began May 13, 1864, through the influences of General Meigs.

While all this was going on the Syphaxes were living on the little plot of land left Maria by Custis. There was no deed, record, will or document of any sort to show the right of possession and even had there been, the action of the Federal Government would have rendered such ownership null and void. Maria with her family, had lived there for upwards of fifty years, and now that the vast estate had been reduced to a waste and a camping ground for the Government's troops, the family began to bestir itself to maintain possession of its property.

William, who by this time had become prominent in Washington, came to his mother's rescue. Through his efforts the matter was brought to the attention of Congress, and with little delay and no debate the Bill for the Relief of Maria Syphax was passed.

On May 16, 1866, Senator Harris, from the Committee on Private Land claims, to which was referred the "memorial of William Syphax, praying to be confirmed in his title of land in the Arlington Estate (so called), Virginia, granted to his mother by the late George Washington Parke Custis" reported a bill (S. No. 321) for the relief of Maria Syphax. The bill proposed to release and confirm to Maria Syphax, her heirs and assigns, the title to a piece of land, being a part of the Arlington estate, upon which she had resided since about the year 1826.

The Bill for the Relief of Maria Syphax came up for a second hearing in the Senate May 18, 1806. Senator Morrill inquired of Senator Harris on what grounds the bill was placed. Senator Harris stated that the person named in the bill was a mulatto woman who was once the slave of Mr. Custis. He said

Mr. Custis, at the time she married about forty years ago feeling an interest in the woman, something perhaps akin to a paternal instinct, manumitted her, and gave her this piece of land. It has been set apart to her, and it has been occupied by her and her family for forty 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.

Senator Harris explained that "the title runs to this woman and her heirs." On June 8, 1866, the House advised the Senate that Bill S. No. 321 for the Relief of Maria Syphax had passed, without amendment. It passed the senate June 11, 1866, and was signed by President Andrew Johnson, June 12, 1866.

Very little information has been preserved about the early life of William Syphax. It is said that he came to Washington, D.C. at the age of eleven and attended private schools taught by an Englishman named Nutall, John T. Johnson and Enoch Ambush, also private schools in Alexandria. Whether he made daily excursions from Arlington to Washington, or returned to Arlington from Alexandria and Washington at certain definite intervals, is not clear in the writer's mind.

He made no effort to obtain his manumission certificate until he was quite a man, when, desiring to accompany Robert C. Winthrop to Boston as an attendant, he went to Alexandria "to get his papers.' He found, in the archives of Alexandria, the document which Custis had signed giving his mother her freedom and that of her daughter, Bertha Elinor, six years old, and one male infant. An octogenarian Quaker affirmed that the male child was the young Negro and he received his credentials." . . . .

Syphax took a prominent part in all movements and assumed leadership in many enterprises for the advancement of Negroes in the city of Washington along social, educational and religious lines. He was one of the founders of the Civil and Statistical Association (18500, the aim of which was the educational, moral and financial advancement of the Negroes of the District of Columbia.

He sponsored and secured the incorporation of Columbian Harmony Cemetery in 1889. Affiliating himself with the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in 1857, he became a deacon there and thus functioned for a period of relatively 20 years. He was appointed copyist in the Interior department in 1851 at $720 a year, promoted July 14, 1874, to $900 a year and appointed to a clerkship at $1,000 a year October 31, 1885. He served under nine Secretaries of the Interior.

Seriously interested in the advancement of his people, Syphax had his first great opportunity in the passing of the act "Relating to Schools for the Education of Colored children in the cities of Washington and Georgetown in the District of Columbia," July 11, 1862. The act created a board of trustees of the schools for Negro children, specified their duties, term of office, etc., and empowered the Secretary of the Interior to fill vacancies and make appointments from residents "of the cities" at the expiration of the term of one of the trustees. William Syphax had long been thus interested.

Syphax became the first president of the Board of Trustees of the Colored Public Schools of Washington, D.C., serving from July 1, 1868, to June 30, 1871. It was in this capacity that he made his chief contribution, for he was a pioneer in the educational movement for the intellectual advancement of the Negroes of Washington, D.C., and did much to lay the foundation for the present school system now enjoyed by the Colored People in the District of Columbia.

Source: Journal of Negro History, Vol. XX (4) 1935, pp. 448-476.

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George Washington Parke Custis (April 30, 1781 – October 10, 1857), the step-grandson of United States President George Washington, was a nineteenth-century American writer, orator, and agricultural reformer. . . . Custis died in 1857 and was buried at Arlington alongside his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis. Custis's will [see above] provided that:

Arlington plantation (approx. 1100 acres) and its contents, including Custis's collection of George Washington's artifacts and memorabilia, would be bequeathed to his only surviving child Mary Anna Custis Lee (wife of Robert E. Lee) for her natural life, and upon her death, to his eldest grandson George Washington Custis Lee;

White House plantation in New Kent County and Romancoke plantation in King William County (approx. 4000 acres each) would be bequeathed to his other two grandsons William Henry Fitzhugh Lee ("Rooney Lee") and Robert Edward Lee, Jr., respectively;

Legacies (cash gifts) of $10,000 each would be provided to his four granddaughters, based on the incomes from the plantations and the sales of other smaller properties; (Some properties could not be sold until after the Civil War and it was doubtful that $10,000 each was ever fully paid.)

Certain property in "square No. 21, Washington City" (possibly located between present day Foggy Bottom and Potomac River) to be bequeathed to Robert E. Lee "and his heirs."

Custis's slaves, numbered around 200, were to be freed once the legacies and debts from his estate were paid, but no later than five years after his death. (Fulfilled by Robert E. Lee, executor, in the winter of 1862.)

Custis's death had great effect on the careers of Robert E. Lee and his two elder sons on the cusp of the American Civil War. Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, named as an executor of the will, took leave from his Army post in Texas for two years to settle the affairs. During the period Lee was ordered to lead troops to quash John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. By 1859, Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, transferred to an Army position in Washington, D.C. so that he could care for Arlington plantation, where his mother and sisters were living. Lee's second son, Rooney Lee, resigned his army commission, got married, and took over farming in White House plantation and nearby Romancoke. Robert E. Lee was able to leave for Texas to resume his Army career in February, 1860.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, the 1,100-acre (4.5 km2) Arlington Plantation was confiscated by Union forces for strategic reasons (protection of the river and national capital). A "Freedman's Village" was established there for freed slaves in 1863. In 1864, Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the US Army, appropriated some parts of Arlington Plantation be used as a military burial ground. After the Civil War, George Washington Custis Lee sued and recovered the title for the Arlington Plantation from the United States government. Congress subsequently bought the property from Lee for $150,000. Arlington Plantation is now Arlington National Cemetery and Fort Myer. Arlington House, built by Custis to honor George Washington, is now the Robert E. Lee Memorial. It is restored and open to the public under the auspices of the National Park Service.—Wikipedia

posted 29 June 2008  

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Midnight Rising

John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. But few Americans know the true story of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South. Now, Midnight Rising portrays Brown's uprising in vivid color, revealing a country on the brink of explosive conflict. Brown, the descendant of New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin against America's founding principles. Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and a guerrilla band that included former slaves and a dashing spy. On October 17, the raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the nation and prompting a counterattack led by Robert E. Lee. After Brown's capture, his defiant eloquence galvanized the North and appalled the South, which considered Brown a terrorist. The raid also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfil Brown's dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he called "a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale."

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Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (2009)

By David Waldstreicher

Taking on decades of received wisdom, David Waldstreicher has written the first book to recognize slavery’s place at the heart of the U.S. Constitution. Famously, the Constitution never mentions slavery. And yet, of its eighty-four clauses, six were directly concerned with slaves and the interests of their owners. Five other clauses had implications for slavery that were considered and debated by the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the citizens of the states during ratification. This “peculiar institution” was not a moral blind spot for America’s otherwise enlightened framers, nor was it the expression of a mere economic interest. Slavery was as important to the making of the Constitution as the Constitution was to the survival of slavery.By tracing slavery from before the revolution, through the Constitution’s framing, and into the public debate that followed, Waldstreicher rigorously shows that slavery was not only actively discussed behind the closed and locked doors of the Constitutional Convention, but that it was also deftly woven into the Constitution itself.

For one thing, slavery was central to the American economy, and since the document set the stage for a national economy, the Constitution could not avoid having implications for slavery. Even more, since the government defined sovereignty over individuals, as well as property in them, discussion of sovereignty led directly to debate over slavery’s place in the new republic. Finding meaning in silences that have long been ignored, Slavery’s Constitution is a vital and sorely needed contribution to the conversation about the origins, impact, and meaning of our nation’s founding document.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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