The Syphax Family

Charles Syphax and Baby
Charles Syphax holding his grandson, ca. 1865.


The Syphaxes were one of the most influential enslaved families at Arlington. Charles Syphax oversaw the dining room at Arlington House and was the unofficial leader of the Arlington enslaved community. The son of a free black itinerant Alexandria street preacher and an enslaved woman from Mount Vernon, Syphax was one of the fifty-seven enslaved people who came to Arlington from Mount Vernon with George Washington Parke Custis in 1802.

Charles Syphax married another enslaved person, Maria Carter. Both had been enslaved at Mount Vernon where they had worked as household servants. Maria Carter Syphax was the daughter of Arianna Carter, an enslaved maid of George and Martha Washington and later George Washington Parke Custis. In 1826, Mr. Custis gave Maria Carter Syphax and her children their freedom and a seventeen-acre plot within the Arlington plantation. The Syphaxes had ten children who lived as free persons on the estate. According to Syphax family tradition, George Washington Parke Custis was the father of Maria Carter Syphax.

The descendants of Charles and Maria Syphax, beginning with their children, have held positions of leadership in the business and community life of Arlington County. Their son, John Syphax, who was born free and educated in Washington, D.C. schools, became a property owner in Arlington County. He held several elective offices including supervisor of the Arlington Magisterial District, delegate to the General Assembly, and justice of the peace.

His brother, William Syphax, served as Chief Messenger of the Department of Interior. He was also a leader in the effort to establish public high school education for African Americans in the Washington, D.C. school system. Many Syphax descendants still live in Arlington County.

Last updated: September 3, 2020

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