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Maria Syphax Case Table

Negro History, Sterling A. Brown, & Franke B. Keefe

Charles Syphax                                                                                                             Maria Syphax



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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I knew nothing of Maria Syphax (1803-1886) of Arlington, Virginia, nor anything of her story or the stories that politicians or literary theorists, or historians may have made of her life. I stumbled onto pieces of her story about seven years ago in the unprocessed papers of Sterling Brown at Howard University. I copied ten to fifteen documents that tied together Sterling Brown's literary relationship to the story of Maria Syphax and Wisconsin Congressman Frank B. Keefe's accusation of a communist plot directing activities in the Federal Writer's Project. 

Maria Syphax was the colored great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, Sterling Brown wrote rather matter-of-factly as if the facts of the assertion were self-evident.   An Archival Search for Sterling Brown

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Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That the title to a piece of land being part of the Arlington estate, in the county of Alexandria, in the State of Virginia, upon which Maria Syphax has resided since about the year eighteen hundred and twenty-six, bounded and described as follows, to wit: An Act for the Relief of Maria Syphax

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Charles Syphax [1791-1869], the only son of William, was a slave who belonged to George Washington Parke Custis [1781-1857], who owned Arlington, Virginia, and its environs. When about ten years of age [1801] Charles 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.  William Syphax A Pioneer

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Racism: A History, the 2007 BBC 3-part documentary explores the impact of racism on a global scale. It was part of the season of programs on the BBC marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. It's divided into 3 parts.

The first, The Colour of Money . . . Racism: A History [2007]—1/3

Begins the series by assessing the implications of the relationship between Europe, Africa and the Americas in the 15th century. It considers how racist ideas and practices developed in key religious and secular institutions, and how they showed up in writings by European philosophers Aristotle and Immanuel Kant.

The second, Fatal Impact . . . Racism: A History [2007] - 2/3

Examines the idea of scientific racism, an ideology invented during the 19th century that drew on now discredited practices such as phrenology and provided an ideological justification for racism and slavery. The episode shows how these theories ultimately led to eugenics and Nazi racial policies of the master race.

And the 3rd, A Savage Legacy . . .  Racism: A History [2007] - 3/3

Examines the impact of racism in the 20th century. By 1900 European colonial expansion had reached deep into the heart of Africa. Under the rule of King Leopold II, the Belgian Congo was turned into a vast rubber plantation. Men, women and children who failed to gather their latex quotas would have their limbs dismembered. The country became the scene of one of the century's greatest racial genocides, as an estimated 10 million Africans perished under colonial rule.

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An Archival Search for Sterling Brown

(Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 )


Documents of the Syphax-Custis Case


An Act for the Relief of Maria Syphax

Charles & William Syphax: Pioneering Spirits

Colonel Custis Daughter

The Family Life of George Washington

Florence Kerr to Walter Chandler

GWP Custis' Will  A Memo

Notes from the Congressional Globe

Sterling Brown Bio

Sterling Brown Requests Historical Material on New Orleans 

Sterling Brown Gives Christian an Assignment  

Sterling Brown Seeks Negro Advisers

Sterling Brown Thanks Christian for History Material 

Sterling Brown to Henry Alsbery  (Memo 1)

Sterling Brown to Henry Alsbery  (Memo 2)

Sterling Brown to Walter White

Syphax and Custis Case (Interviews)

Walter White to Franklin D. Roosevelt

Will of George Washington Parke Custis 

"W.P.A. Guidebook Arouses Fuss"    

Related Files

Bitter Valentine 

Crytsal on Janet & Michael 

Dunbar and Traditional Dialect 

Fifty Influential Figures

The Honeymoon Is Over  


MBC Letter Table 

Marcus Bruce Christian

Missing You 

Mosquitoes Fly Out My Head

Sterling Brown Bio

Temporary Lovers 

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The young negro [William Syphax] found in the archives at Alexandria the paper which Col. Custis had signed giving his mother her freedom and that of "her daughter Bertha, six years old, and one male infant." An octogenarian Quaker affirmed that the male child was the young negro and he received his credentials.

But the most interesting fact in the family history is that this old lady, who by act of Congress, is to be allowed to end her days on her own bit of earth, was doubly descended from the Custises. Her mother was Martha Washington's maid. The family of Robert E. Lee inherited the respect for the blood of the former slave woman, and they confirmed the legacy of Col. Custis by saying that the bit of land was hers, as though there was no deed to show in fact.  Colonel Custis Daughter

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Prof. Charles S. Syphax and Mrs. Syphax, 315 T. St., City. They have summer home on tract given by W.P.A. Custis to Maria Syphax. Original tract, approximately 17 1/2 acres. They claim that the Lee family have always been friendly toward the Syphax relatives. Prof. Syphax remembers his grandmother, Maria S[yphax], but does not recall having heard her mention her father, G.W.P.C. [George Washington Parke Custis] He has heard his father (her son) mention frequently the relationship. Prof. S[yphax] was at Hoard for 46 years -- retired two years ago. Mrs. S[yphax] was the third woman to graduate from Howard, and later was instructor there. Syphax and Custis Case

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New hot water for the W.P.A.'s Federal writers' project was being stored up on Capitol Hill today because of what that agency views as an "incidental reference" in its guidebook of Washington to George Washington Parke Custis.

The reference, apparently unnoticed outside the project until recently, was to the effect that the stepgrandson of George Washington--who later became his adopted son--and father-in-law of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was the father of Maria Syphax, a Negro.

First to blast this assertion as "a libel" and "an attempt to stimulate a feeling of class hatred" was Representative Keefe (Republican, Wisconsin), who, after conducting his own investigation, took the issue to the floor of the House yesterday.

Today his speech in the Congressional Record caused a rumbling on the Senate side to supplement the fighting going on there over the W.P.A.'s supplemental appropriation. Several Senators threatened to take the matter to the Senate floor before the debate is ended.

Tucked away in the middle of a chapter captioned "the Negro in Washington," and telling of the disposition of a large body of freed slaves, the guidebook relates: WPA Guidebook Arouses Fuss

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Weep Not, Child

By Ngugi wa Thiong'o

This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their countrythe teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.—Penguin 

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

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.


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Allah, Liberty, and Love

The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom

By Irshad Manji

In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times. What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation? What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam?

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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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Negro Digest / Black World

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

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 29 June 2008 



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