Following the American Civil War the movement to establish normal schools, colleges and universities of, for and by peoples of African descent in large part emanated from established private and public support networks out of Washington City from collective efforts of elected officials, Union generals, Northern philanthropists, reformist clergy and radical educators of African descent.
Within this distinctive culture and community of D.C.’s “aristocrats of color” was an inherited obligation and guiding responsibility to use their influence to reach back to uplift the children and grandchildren of the recently emancipated.
Among Black American elite families leading the charge to establish and endow a transformative public colored school system in Washington City were the Syphaxes of Mount Vernon and Arlington House, as well the multi-generational Douglass family.
The Douglass family, their patriarch Honorable Frederick (Bailey) Douglass along with his sons and daughters-in-laws, and the Syphax family, led by William Syphax (1825 – 1891) and Charles Syphax (1829 – 1885), worked together during the first generation of Washington City’s Public Colored Schools at all levels of support from attending examinations in school houses throughout the city to lobbying members of Congress for increased resources.
Following the American Civil War, Washington City’s Public Colored school system quickly became a shining “example for all the land” for the nation’s Freedman communities to emulate.
Building from an existing school house infrastructure established before and during the War for students of African descent, Washington’s colored schools had a long-established tradition of preparing homegrown talent, such as the fiery William Calvin Chase, who would became leaders within local and national circles, as well preparing students to light out into the larger country to make a lasting impact within communities of African-descended peoples by establishing schools, businesses, banks, newspapers and other institutions vital to Black American life.
Benevolence, political support and social investment in the city’s schools was not wanting from the leading families of Washington City from the Bruces to Cooks to Langstons to Shadds to Douglasses to Syphaxes.
With leading Black American scholars and activists at the head of the classroom, DC’s Colored Schools independently produced prodigious talent. Many of the first Black American graduates of this country’s oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities were either graduates of DC’s Colored Schools, or instructors within DC’s Colored schools, or both.
The Douglass grandchildren attended schools throughout the city, matriculating, alongside their groundbreaking classmates, to earn the first diplomas conferred by America’s Ivy League universities to scholars descended from the families of American enslavement. (Haley George Douglass attended DC’s Colored Schools before graduating from Harvard in 1905 where upon he taught, and coached football, at the M Street School (Dunbar) for generations.)
As their parents were respected within the communities of Old Anacostia, Barry Farm and Hillsdale as the founding teachers and administers of schools serving families from the Diaspora of American enslavement, the Douglass grandchildren were respected for their scholastic achievement in a competitive and meritorious classroom.
A frequent presence at school ceremonies, in 1874 Frederick Douglass offered remarks at a public examination of the Sumner School. In a letter to the New National Era “STYLUS” reported:
“The medals and diplomas were conferred on the scholars with appropriate remarks by Hon. Wm. Stickney, Pres. of the Council of the District of Columbia after which Hon. Frederick Douglass Sr. addressed the audience in a short and terse speech most congratulatory to the students.”
“Among the distinguished gentlemen present were Messrs Hon. Wm. Stickney, Z. Richards, Rev J. Sella Martin, Hon. Lewis Douglass, Editor of the “NEW NATIONAL ERA,” Hon. Frederick Douglass Sr., J. H. Brooks Esq., Geo. T. Downing, Prof. Sampson, Judge Garland of Texas, J. L. Venable Esq. Trustees Smith, Lewis, Pope, Rider, Marshal and Johnson and others.
The teachers and scholars are worthy of much praise for efforts in making this a success.”
Among the notable students participating in the Sumner School’s public examination in June 1874 was a grand-daughter of Mount Vernon, Washingtonian Mary E. Syphax (1859 – 1899), daughter of Charles Syphax (1829 – 1885), grand-daughter of Charles (1791 – 1869) and Maria Carter Custis Syphax (1804 – 1886), great grand-daughter of George Washington Parke Custis (1781 – 1857), great-great grand-daughter of John Parke Custis and great-great-great grand-daughter of Martha Washington (1731 – 1802).
Members of the respected Syphax family worked closely with Frederick Douglass to raise funds to establish and support the growth of DC’s Public colored school system. Members of the Syphax and Douglass families are well accounted for and represented within the ranks of graduates and faculty of Washington City’s public colored schools for generations.
The importance of the intersectionality, associations and contributions of these leading families has yet to be told.
After graduating Mary Syphax taught at the John F. Cook School, and in 1881 married at Rev. Francis Grimke’s 15th Street Presbyterian Church.
In January 1884 Rev. Grimke officiated the private wedding ceremony of Frederick Douglass and Helen Pitts.
Tragically Mary Elinor “Mamie” Syphax Brodie passed after a short illness in December 1899 at the age of 40. She was survived by her husband and children.
We cannot overstate the historical significance and consequence of the service and examples set by these leading Black American families — the Douglasses and the Syphaxes — and what their contributions to the social fabric of this country in their time mean to us today.
JHM & JLM