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The Syphax family, which claimed direct descent from Martha Custis Washington's grandson George Washington Parke Custis, was for generations a prominent and influential local family. Maria Carter was the daughter of Custis and Airy Carter, an enslaved woman. In 1821 she married Charles Syphax, the enslaved butler at Arlington who oversaw the dining room and maintained the gardens. The Syphaxes had two children and then in 1826 secured their freedom. Custis gave the Syphaxes 17 acres of land within the Arlington House plantation, across the Potomac River from Washington. The couple went on to have eight more children who were born free.

William Syphax (1825-1891) was born enslaved at Arlington, the son of Maria and Charles Syphax. He became an educator and also worked at the Department of the Interior. He served as the first president of the Board of Trustees of the Colored Schools of Washington (1868-1871). He is also credited as a leader in the effort to establish the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in 1870. Toward the end of his days, he was a tireless advocate for the desegregation of Washington's public schools.

In 1902 the William Syphax School, 1360 Half Street, SW, was constructed as a memorial to the educational work of William Syphax. In 2004 it is undergoing restoration as part of a development of affordable housing

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