Graphic by Maisie Derlega
William Syphax was a man of exceptional stature, standing six feet tall with broad shoulders, striking cheekbones, a straight nose, and light brown skin which at the time of his birth, 1825, constituted him as a second-class citizen. Despite the ubiquitous racism and discrimination that plagued society, Syphax defied all odds and became one of the most respected Black men of his time in DC and is now being considered as a possible replacement for the name of Woodrow Wilson High School.
He was born into a highly regarded and prominent enslaved family at Arlington House in Alexandria County, Virginia. His father, Charles Syphax, was the unofficial leader of the Arlington enslaved community and his mother, Maria Syphax, whose father is thought to have been George Washington Parke Custis, was manumitted when Syphax was an infant.
His expansive education at various private schools in Arlington and DC earned him the opportunity in 1851 to work in the office of the Secretary of the Interior, eventually rising to the position of Chief Messenger. This position was open to very few Black men at the time, but Syphax proved his capabilities and gained the respect of numerous government officials.
In 1868, he was appointed to work on the Board of Trustees of Colored Public School. Later he earned the position of Chairman which he held for two years. Syphax was also a vocal supporter of the integration of schools. He deplored the economically adverse and racially discriminatory idea of ‘separate but equal’ education and his work for racial equity in education created the groundwork for most of DC’s predominantly Black schools today, including Dunbar High School.
Syphax’s unrelenting courage and own conviction showed through in his life. He was never afraid to challenge unjust policies and pushed personal interests to the backburner to advance social and racial equality for Black citizens.