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My Cousins, the Syphaxes

A very American story.

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By KEN JENSEN
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I was charmed by Lee Smith’s “Dreams from My Mother” Casual a few issues back. The main delight was learning that Smith was a multiethnic “mutt” like myself and most of the rest of Americans whose families have been here more than a generation or two.

Peter Joseph

Peter Joseph

Henry Louis Gates’s PBS genealogy series last year, Finding Your Roots, although interesting, seemed to me intended to tell us that we aren’t who we think we are, especially those of us who pass for Anglo-Saxons or African Americans. It was more like “gotcha” than a celebration of salutary ethnic diversity. You know: “the melting pot.”

Here’s why I celebrate. Having grown up half Danish and thinking the other half (which turned out to be a quarter) was second-Mayflower English or otherwise (maybe Austrian), I discovered in 2009 that I’m an eighth African-American and a sixteenth Jewish. I was tickled enough to learn this. I thought, “Well, why not? So what if your ancestors founded Sudbury (Massachusetts), Newark, and Yale? So what if Moses Pierson beat back Canadians and Indians at Shelburne on Lake Champlain in 1778? Part of you is also black and from Northern Virginia, via New Orleans, and another part from Habsburg lands. How cool is that?”

That was not, however, the end of the coolness. In June 2009, the African-American Syphax family from the Washington, D.C., area found me and told me my exact place in the family tree. It turned out that the Syphaxes were descended from Mt. Vernon slaves and that my great-great-great-grandmother, Nancy Syphax, had been a slave at Decatur House on Lafayette Square until emancipation. Her daughter Margaret, for reasons unknown, ended up a slave in New Orleans. Margaret was purchased in the late 1830s by a Galician Jew named Spaero Joseph Narravich. He also purchased their son, Peter Joseph (still in the womb), my great grandfather. Narravich deserted the family fairly quickly, and his son dropped the name Narravich in disgust.

Now, Joseph lived in New Orleans from 1842 to 1890. Although he was fair-skinned (and looked exactly like me), he lived as a black man. After an impoverished youth, he served in a black regiment during the Civil War. I’ve seen his veteran’s records, in which he professed that he’d been “conceived a slave and born free.”

During Reconstruction, he became a significant political figure in Louisiana. He was part of the cast at the French Opera House (he lived next door) and one of the four police captains. And he also started a successful construction business.

In 1876, Joseph was a Republican presidential elector in Louisiana. In the electoral vote of that year, Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden 185-184. Joseph enhanced his reputation afterwards by telling the press he’d been offered a $100,000 bribe by the Tilden camp to change his vote. This he refused to do.

Joseph moved his wife, six daughters, and my maternal grandfather to Denver in 1890, where he continued to build things. Unbelievably, he sent all of his children to college, my grandfather to Georgetown even.

Now that’s enough of a story to delight any mutt. But it’s hardly all: Peter Joseph was just one Syphax. In due course, I learned that slave Ariana Carter Syphax bore a child named Maria Carter Syphax by George Washington Park Custis (Martha Washington’s grandson), who, honorably, raised her and his legitimate daughter as equals. The latter married Robert E. Lee. Lee gave Maria 16.5 acres of his estate to live on during her lifetime. It was confiscated by the Federals in due course, and I still haven’t figured out where exactly it was in what’s now Arlington Cemetery. The Syphaxes were a big deal in D.C.’s black school system during Reconstruction, with William Syphax presiding over all.

The last two Syphax generations have been full of notables. Take, for example, Burke Syphax, who died just a few years ago at 99 and earned a half-page obituary in the Washington Post. Burke trained most of the black surgeons in Washington, D.C., at Howard University and became, in time, the first black president of the American College of Surgeons and the first black president of the American Red Cross. The late Julian Dixon of California, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, turns out to be my fifth cousin. You can throw in with the rest my cousin Edward Gleed, a Tuskegee airman. And there’s much more: anything you can imagine, in fact.

Now, I submit that one wouldn’t be an American if he weren’t pleased to find such things out, even after being regaled for years about one’s ties to Danish stonemasons and Anglo-American notables. Of course, none of this makes one anything of what one really is, but all stories like this do say an awful lot about America, and with recognition of such family history comes, I submit, gratefulness.

In case you’re wondering where the name Syphax comes from, take a look at Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita and read about the king of the ancient Algerian tribe Masaesyli of western Numida during the last quarter of the 3rd century b.c. Cousin Vincent assures me that we’re direct descendants of the king.

Next stop: finding out about my largely unknown Danish family. Question: Is there a Brahe (as in Tycho) or a Kierkegaard (as in Søren) or (what would be best of all) a Rosenbaum (as in Victor Borge) in the woodpile?

Ken Jensen is associate director of the American Center for Democracy for its Economic Warfare Institute.

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