Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The prominent name of Syphax is associated by most Arlingtonians with education activist Evelyn Syphax, for whom our Education Center is named.
The family name is also intertwined with the history of Arlington House, where enslaved members of that family toiled and eventually became free and highly accomplished — their ancestor Maria Syphax, historians now recognize, was the secret daughter of plantation owner George Washington Parke Custis.

But there’s another Syphax branch that merits fresh recognition. William Thomas Syphax (1920-89) and wife Margarite (still living at 97) from the 1950s-‘80s loomed as major figures in Arlington’s business community. The Ballston-based W.T. Syphax Real Estate Co. and Syphax Management Co. landed the millionaires in the nation’s top 100 black-owned businesses in the early 1970s. They were written up in Newsweek and Black Enterprise magazine. Margarite was invited for honors at the White House during the Nixon administration.

But as their daughter Carolyn Syphax-Young reminds me, they got their start battling to improve the sub-standard housing and water systems endured under segregation by many African Americans, both in Arlington and in the greater Washington area. They built in William’s childhood neighborhood of Arlington View (previously Johnson Hill), as well as Highland Park and Green Valley. The couple’s first apartment complex was the 77-unit Arlington View Terrace garden-style apartments on S. Rolfe St. near Army Navy Country Club.

As noted in a Central Library Center for Local History exhibit, William and Margarite met while doing USO work during World War II. She was a dancer and an electronics engineer. After a rich postwar education — William earned a master’s in engineering administration from George Washington University and a Ph.D.in behavioral philosophy from Pacific Western University — they moved to Arlington’s South Queen Street. They set to work to plug a yawning gap in available housing simply by ignoring the practice — still common in the ‘50s and ‘60s — of racial restrictions on renters. By 1959, they had built 100 custom homes too.

William was the developer, Margarite the secretary-treasurer, though she ventured out to work as one of the few females seen on construction sites. He became president of the Virginia Real Estate Brokers Association, chairman of the Arlington County Building Code Board of Appeals and, at one point, director of the Arlington County Red Cross.

She was one of the first black businesswomen to earn the title of Certified Property Manager from the Institute of Real Estate Management of the National Association of Real Estate Boards. She also served on Arlington’s 1976 Bicentennial Commission.

I read the history center’s oral history interview with William, conducted in 1988 by civil rights attorney Edmund Campbell. He mentioned the property his ancestors received from Custis, stretching from today’s Sheraton Hotel to the Marine Barracks to one of Arlington National Cemetery’s two mausoleums. His father’s dairy delivered milk to Fort Myer. He and Margarite were friendly with neighbor Leone Buchholz, a county board member in the 1950s. He recalled that the streetcar line had a Syphax station, and that some of his family were buried in the graves on the former Odd Fellows property near Columbia Pike.

These Syphaxes were also philanthropic — William regularly befriended students at the segregated Hoffman-Boston public school. He sent more than 100 children to college, said his daughter.
“He was never the type to have a Cadillac.”

Neighborhood development battles leave lasting memories. Author and veteran journalist Joe Goulden recently recalled to me nostalgically his adventures back in the 1960s in helping prevent the building of unsightly high-rise condos on N. Sycamore St. at Washington Blvd.

During that era that site was woods and a creek where the Goulden and his sons, who lived on N. 22nd Rd. and Roosevelt St., loved catching frogs. “My main contribution was to write news releases for the local paper — which usually published them as written,” he said. The result: the neighborhood protestors “knocked” the developer down to townhouses, which are there today as Sycamore Heights.