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An Excerpt from Our Kind of People/the Origins of the Black and Upper Class

 by Lawrence Otis Graham

 

            One of my first encounters with an early pioneering family in the black upper class was meeting members of the aristocratic Syphax Family from Virginia.  I had grown up hearing my father tell me about their family history, as one of his father’s business associates had known several family members.  Talking to Evelyn Reid Syphax at a links meeting that my mother had brought me to, I learned one way in which some black families—including her own—gained wealth and a place among the upper class. ‘My family had owned fifteen acres of land where the Arlington National Cemetery now sits,’ Syphax explained as she recounted the history of her family, which can be traced back to Maria Custis, the mulatto child of First Lady Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who owned the mansion that sits on the cemetery today.  ‘Custis fathered Maria with Ariana Carter, one of his female house slaves,’ explained Syphax, a well-to-do, retired real estate broker who lives in Virginia, “and when Maria asked her father, who was also still her owner, for permission to marry Charles Syphax, a black slave who worked for her father, he released both from slavery, gave her a wedding in the mansion, and offered her and her husband fifteen acres of the Arlington estate.  That mansion and the surrounding property—minus Maria Syphax’s fifteen acres—was later given by Custis to his white daughter, Mary Custis, who eventually married Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee—thus making the house a famous building in the southern state.’

 

On my first trip to Washington with my family in the late 1960s, I remember my parents remarking that the Syphax story was evidence that a black family’s genealogy could be as relevant to our country’s history as any white family’s that I might read about in school.  The fact that the Syphaxes were still residing in the community today made their story even more real to me at that age.  Since that time, Syphax famiy has continued to gain wealth through other real estate holdings and through businesses that involved commercial and residential development and sales