Highlights from the Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial museum collection
William Syphax and his autograph book
Objects: William Syphax’s photograph and autograph book
Pictured is a daguerreotype of William Syphax and his autograph book. Syphax started the autograph book while he was Chief Messenger at the Secretary of the Interior’s office. The book’s autograph collection contains 209 signatures from prominent people such as Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Chief Justice Roger Taney, John Jay, William Lloyd Garrison, and George Washington Parke Custis. Both objects are a part of the Arlington House museum collection. It will be on display in our new African American history exhibit.
Who was William Syphax?
William Syphax was the son of Maria and Charles Syphax, who were both enslaved on the Arlington plantation. Maria was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, owner of the Arlington House and the 1100 acre plantation, and Arianna Carter, an enslaved maid. William was born on the Arlington estate on April 4, 1825 and him, his mother Maria, and his only sister at the time were manumitted in 1826.
Little is known about William’s early life, but he eventually became an influential figure that was involved in political, social, and educational affairs in Washington, DC. In 1868 he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Colored Public School of Washington, DC. He served as chairman for two years, 1868-1870, and as treasurer for one year, 1870-1871. William organized the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in the basement of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church which became Dunbar High School in 1916. He also helped create several schools in the District, he was one of the founders of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, he sponsored a new cemetery, and he was active in organizations dedicated to the advancement of African Americans.
William married Mary M. Browne and they had three children together. He died June 15, 1891.