Maria Carter Syphax, Arlington's Daughter

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JPK Huson 1863

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Maria Carter Syphax.jpg

Maria Carter Syphax, here looking like the grand matron she came to be, was born Maria Carter at Arlington House, Virginia. Her parents, Airy Carter and George Washington Parke Custis never married ; Airy was enslaved.

This is in no way some golly gee whiz revelation. We're all too unfortunately familiar with the still contentious topic of Thomas Jefferson's children, born through his long association with enslaved Sally Hemmings. OH the gnashing of teeth, finger pointing anywhere but in Jefferson's direction, the endless " Did he or didn't he ? " culminating in bewilderment. Well of course he did, everyone take their ball and go home. What bugs me so much is the shock-horror, salacious aspect any of his children were black. We do that a lot, to the point where Mary Randolph Custis Lee is denied a sister.

It happened, unsurprisingly what happened when there's a ( literally ) captive ' audience '. According to era reports and accounts from still unmuddied waters 150 plus years ago, George Washington Parke Custis gave an enslaved woman, Mariah Carter and her new husband, Charles Syphax 17 acres as a wedding present. He also gave them the wedding inside Arlington House and later, her freedom. The wedding was in 1826.

Mariah Carter was the daughter of Airy Carter, a house servant and yes, father GWP Custis. I should say ' reputed to be ' since no one was there save Airy and George. Acknowledged at the time, it seems few had any illusions- although of course snark followed facts in reports.
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This couple, Charles and Mariah founded a dynasty albeit a Northern dynasty. You have to note the era, back-handed compliment here, where a man described as intelligent has ' white blood ' in his veins. Still, the author makes a point of ' pedigree ', always a consideration in the era. I'm a little doubtful about Mary Lee's 40 siblings, seems a little busy for a man building a massive memorial and running a plantation.

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Husband Charles, like his wife brought to Arlington from Mount Vernon estate when Custis built Arlington, holds a grandson, William.

Charles's and Maria's son William created quite a stir, working for the Department of the Interior, he insisted schools for black children be a priority. Well, as a founder of Arlington's Freedman's Village he ensured education was part of the community.

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Quite a bit of outrage followed this, some citizens of Washington worried publically that the black population would rise ' above ' white neighbors- and how awful for everyone........

Douglas Syphax, Maria's son was at Camp Casey by war's end, listed as ' unassigned ' in the USCT. Someone better versed in this family's history would be able to say how many children served in the USCT. Another child of Arlington, Douglas, William and his brothers were never enslaved, living and working at Arlington and in Washington, DC as free.

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A plethora of online information on the Syphax family, be careful choosing which. For some reason not as famous as Thomas Jefferson's gee-whiz relationship with Sally, Airy and George's can be contentious, too- no idea why. It's a terrific American story of who, exactly we were hence who we are.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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It turns out that many southern gentlemen had much to sweep under the rug. Men have always used their power and position to have their way, but when it is against the will of the woman it can only be considered one thing.

Yes, and it makes it a tough topic. Is it adding to the harm, doing these threads? Because they stubbornly held on and, where possible, created much good in the world anyway, there's a danger of minimizing. I remember a few threads devolving into contention- which takes focus away from both struggles and achievements. On the other hand, it makes you a little crazy to see our American history turned into a kinda narrowly defined fairy tale. It was what it was, some of it incredibly ugly.

Elizabeth Keckley's father was a white man. Her memoirs include the woman of the family she grew up with ridiculing her father, for pretending Elizabeth did not exist. She also had a child who ' passed ' as a white man, in the war, for a reason. Keckley's career was astonishing, all by her sheer grit, talent and work which would drop a teamster. Like I said, there's a danger of minimizing what happened to her - Catch 22.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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Didn't know this. You always find interesting subjects.


This is terrible Donna but had no clue about her, either, for all the poking around in Mary Custis Lee's life and in Arlington history. Someone mentioned her in a thread so gave me a lead.

You know that ' new ' photo, alleged to be enslaved women at Arlington? Never been clear why they are identified that way. It transpires Arlington's black population included employees, not only enslaved. Used to see this all the time on Ebay- sellers of old photos would list any image of an era black citizen as ' slave '. A lot more people than me must have objected because you don't see them listed like that now.
 

Zella

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Thank you for posting this! I was trying to figure out why the name Syphax sounded familiar to me. I finally realized I had read about one of Douglas's sons (Theophilus John Syphax) in a Reader's Digest article several years ago.

The story always stayed with me because it was a tragic one--he cut off ties from his family to pass as white and only revealed his true identity due to an inheritance issue (on his mother's side). Seems like he ended up alienating all his surviving relatives when he acknowledged his true background, and his death shortly after his revelation touched off years of legal battles.

http://mckeescholars.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/SecretsLies.htm

Interestingly enough, the article just mentions his Syphax family was "an illustrious Virginia clan who had owned acres of land in Arlington," with no mention of their famous ties. It focuses more on his mother's family, which was also quite famous in their own right. I had no idea of the connection to the Lees, Custises, or Washingtons until I read this thread.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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Thank you for posting this! I was trying to figure out why the name Syphax sounded familiar to me. I finally realized I had read about one of Douglas's sons (Theophilus John Syphax) in a Reader's Digest article several years ago.

The story always stayed with me because it was a tragic one--he cut off ties from his family to pass as white and only revealed his true identity due to an inheritance issue (on his mother's side). Seems like he ended up alienating all his surviving relatives when he acknowledged his true background, and his death shortly after his revelation touched off years of legal battles.

http://mckeescholars.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/SecretsLies.htm

Interestingly enough, the article just mentions his Syphax family was "an illustrious Virginia clan who had owned acres of land in Arlington," with no mention of their famous ties. It focuses more on his mother's family, which was also quite famous in their own right. I had no idea of the connection to the Lees, Custises, or Washingtons until I read this thread.

Thank you Zella- so it was Theophilus who cut off ties? Ran into a mention of a family member who left his past behind, like it was something dreadful, but it was only a mention. Agreed, what a tragic story, goodness. In 2018, discovering this connection to so much History would have been like the best Christmas present ever. Really so awful knowing race played such a large role in society, someone would feel their own family couldn't be acknowledged. Having said that, boy, it took some gall deciding the money was his, anyway.

You know, it is odd about Arlington. Admit to a fascination because the whole property is such an absorbing story and also because Mary Custis seems so left out, too. Genuinely do not mean it contentiously or to be dismissive of the Lee history there. It's all part of it and should be. It's just that this old, ungainly home has such a multi-faceted past with a tap root reaching into our collective history. The Syphax family was what I heard an historian call ' big noise ', meaning important, influential and very well known. I don't know. Seems crazy of us not to see how isolating it is, only to tell one story of Arlington- when it's a crazy good story of so much history here.
 
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