Syphax Family at Arlington House
John Bryce Syphax, member of the House of Delegates, was the son of Charles Syphax and Maria Carter Syphax, the freed daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, and therefore a great-great-grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. He was the younger brother of William Syphax, one of the pioneers of public education for African Americans in Washington, D.C. Syphax was born late in the 1830s or early in the 1840s, probably on Custis’s Arlington estate in Alexandria County, which was part of the District of Columbia until 1846 and was renamed Arlington County in 1920. His mother resided there on 17.53 acres of land that Custis permitted her to occupy and possess as if she owned it. During the Civil War (1861–1865), the federal government seized the Arlington estate, then the residence of Confederate general Robert Edward Lee, and established Freedmen’s Village there, where a large number of freed people, including some who had belonged to the Custis family, resided. In 1866 the government formally deeded to Syphax’s mother the land her father had provided her.
Nothing is recorded about Syphax’s youth or education. In 1860 he was working as a servant in the household of Washington, D.C.’s mayor. It is not certain when Syphax returned to Virginia to live with his mother, but by April 1872 he was attending Republican Party conventions in the county, and later in the spring was elected to the county board of supervisors. Despite his already holding office, at the end of October the Republicans nominated him for county clerk. Syphax was elected and resigned from the board of supervisors. His tenure as clerk of the county and of the circuit court was even briefer than his term as supervisor. Early in January 1873 a few days after Syphax had taken office, Alexandria judge Richard H. Cockerille twice rebuked him for not doing his job properly. At the same time Syphax had also been charged with improperly attempting to influence a local magistrate. At the February court session the judge dismissed Syphax from office. Later that same day a jury convicted him and fined him $50, which the judge reduced to $25. Syphax evidently never paid the fine and tried without success to petition Congress for relief.
In November 1873 Syphax and another Republican won election to the two Alexandria County seats in the House of Delegates. He received 417 votes, the other Republican 453, and two Conservative Party candidates 128 and 101 respectively. During his two-year term, Syphax was the least-senior member of the relatively inconsequential Committee on Executive Expenditures. He unsuccessfully introduced a bill to abolish chain gangs and proposed a resolution to honor recently deceased Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, who had been one of the foremost opponents of slavery before and during the Civil War. Syphax was not afraid to challenge Conservatives in the assembly and one member moved unsuccessfully to expel him from the House in April 1874 after he insulted Fairfax County delegate Richard Cockerville, the judge who had removed Syphax as clerk of court. Syphax was permitted to apologize, as was sometimes done when heated tempers led members to make critical comments about each other.
Early in the winter 1874–1875 legislative session, Syphax introduced an unsuccessful bill to construct a toll-free bridge across the Potomac River between Alexandria County and Washington, D.C. In one of the most important actions that session, the assembly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that introduced a poll tax as a prerequisite for voting and disqualified from voting people convicted of minor offenses. Both provisions were deliberately intended to suppress the vote of African Americans; Syphax voted against the amendment and voters ratified it in 1876. Late in February 1875 Peter Jacob Carter, an African American Republican from the Eastern Shore, nominated Syphax for lieutenant governor to fill an unexpired term. So few were the Republicans in the General Assembly that session that in the joint ballot of the two houses Syphax received only 10 votes out of 141 cast. Frustrated at how little influence his fellow Republicans had in the assembly and the party, Syphax signed a public address at the end of March to summon a state convention of African Americans.
At the three-day convention in Richmond late in August 1875, Syphax served on the Committee on Resolutions, which proposed on behalf of what it stated was 90 percent of the Republicans in the state a demand that the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant stop appointing Democrats to federal offices in the state. The criticism of the president was too strong for a majority of the delegates who refused to adopt it. They later adopted resolutions in favor of reducing interest payments on the state’s public debt and forming a statewide Laboring Men’s Mechanics’ Union Association to unite African Americans to enable them to “receive a fair compensation for a day’s labor,” purchase land for themselves, and join together to protect their rights as “American citizens.”
In the meantime, Syphax sought the Republican nomination for county treasurer. At the convention on May 24, 1875, he lost by one vote then immediately announced that he would run for the office as an independent. He won but failed to qualify and take office, reportedly because he could not post the required bond. Syphax continued to attend local Republican conventions and a state convention of what was described as Radical Republicans in April 1876. He became increasingly critical of white politicians, even in his own party, who he believed inadequately supported the interests of African Americans. In May 1877, Syphax published a long statement that urged Republicans, including the new president, to oppose recent trends in the South that had reduced the freedom of African Americans to a “political serfdom, with the ghost of slavery as its life and essence.” In January 1879 Syphax published a letter to Republican Senator William Windom disagreeing with his proposal that African Americans be encouraged to migrate away from the South, where they were often denied their constitutional rights. Syphax declared that the rights of African Americans should be protected everywhere.
In August 1877 Alexandria Republicans nominated Syphax and a white man as the party’s candidates for the county’s two seats in the House of Delegates. They faced two white Workingmen’s Party candidates, which served to split the Republican vote, and they lost to two white Conservatives who each received more than 900 votes while the other four candidates received between 201 and 382 each; Syphax received 373 votes. He considered running again in 1879 but did not. At a meeting in January 1880 African American Republicans in Alexandria approved a resolution introduced by Syphax condemning the lack of African Americans appointed to positions in the federal government even though their votes had contributed to victories by the Republican Party. Syphax was involved in arguments at many of the party gatherings in which he participated. A faction of local Republicans elected him a delegate to the state convention in April 1880, but the convention ruled him ineligible to serve.
As critical as Syphax had become of unreliable white Republicans, he was initially impressed by the new biracial Readjuster Party that was founded in 1879 and that proposed to refinance the antebellum public debt to reduce interest payments and increase appropriations for the public schools. He attended the July 1880 Readjuster Party state convention and the March 1881 convention of African American Republicans that voted to affiliate with the Readjusters in that autumn’s elections for statewide offices and members of the General Assembly. Syphax quickly became dissatisfied with the new party’s white leadership, which he believed privileged white men over African American men, even though Readjuster majorities in both houses of the 1881–1882 assembly session enacted numerous reforms advantageous to African Americans.
In 1882 Syphax entered the race for congressman-at-large as an independent Republican, not as a member of the Republican/Readjuster coalition. Having failed to win the endorsement of local Republicans about a month before the election, he accepted instead their nomination as the candidate for the Eighth Congressional District, which encompassed the cities of Alexandria and Winchester and eleven counties in northern Virginia. Syphax received 227 votes out of 23,544 cast.
Syphax publicly criticized Readjuster leader William Mahone several times in 1883 and continued to be, as he had been for nearly a decade, an argumentative and polarizing presence in Republican Party conventions. Syphax was part of the group that called together a state convention of about ninety African Americans that met in Lynchburg at the end of September 1885. They declared less than five weeks before the statewide election that they would act independently of political parties and seek to advance the cause of African Americans. Syphax spoke against Readjuster candidates during the campaign. A few days before the election he published a notice in the Alexandria Gazette in which he concluded, “Truth, after many experiments, compels me to admit that the most permanent, honest and trustful friends are those the colored people are taught to oppose.” The Republican/Readjuster coalition candidates lost, and thereafter the Readjuster Party fell apart and ceased to exist.
Syphax began openly cooperating with Democrats. In March 1886, with endorsements from Democratic congressman John Warwick Daniel and Democratic governor Fitzhugh Lee, Syphax led a delegation of African Americans to Washington, where they met with President Grover Cleveland and requested his assistance “in breaking down the barrier still existing between the white and colored races.” That summer, with support from the governor and the state Democratic Central Committee, Syphax made the first of several attempts to start a newspaper in Alexandria. In May 1887 he published the first edition of the Virginia Sun. No copies appear to have survived, and it is not known for how long he published the paper. That same month, African Americans in Alexandria who had voted for Lee for governor in 1885 invited Syphax to attend the Democratic Party state convention.
On March 15, 1887, in New York, Syphax married Agnes Lee Syphax. They had ten children, of whom four sons and two daughters were still alive when she died in New York on June 17, 1906. They may have lived initially in Delaware, where their first son and two daughters were born between 1888 and 1891. In September 1892 Syphax sold to his brother his interest in the Arlington land that they and their other siblings had jointly inherited from their mother. At some unrecorded time thereafter, Syphax and his wife moved to Brooklyn, New York. Before he left Virginia, Syphax unsuccessfully objected to a War Department plan to remove the people who still lived on the site of Freedmen’s Village, while also urging the department to compensate each of the residents who were to be dispossessed of property on which they had resided, and in some cases believed they owned, since the Civil War.
Syphax became active in Democratic Party politics in New York late in the decade and in May 1900 was elected chair of the United Colored Democracy of Kings County. He campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in that fall’s presidential election and eight years later supported Bryan’s third campaign for president. Interviewed during that campaign, Syphax heaped scorn on Republican candidate William Howard Taft and recalled his own disappointments in Virginia politics. “The effort of Mr. Taft to secure Southern Democratic votes over the murdered bodies of colored men,” Syphax charged, “is an act which ought to bring a blush of shame to every Republican in the land.” Syphax then declared, “When I look back and see how they have deceived these poor colored people, and then come at last and tell them their former masters are their best friends, I am astounded.” A few days after Taft’s inauguration in March 1909, Syphax signed a public demand that Taft not appoint African Americans to patronage positions in the South so that they would not remain dependent on the favors of white Republicans who only wanted the votes of African Americans in order to secure their own political power.
Syphax publicly supported Democrats again in the presidential campaign of 1912 and in 1913, he or his namesake son worked as an assistant janitor, a patronage job, in Albany during the session of the New York State Assembly. Syphax died in Brooklyn, New York, on September 8, 1916, and was buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery in that city.