Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Black History Month, for Steve Hammond, forms just part of his ongoing retirement project of ferreting out new truths about Arlington.

The seventh-generation descendant of the Syphax family that came up from slavery at Arlington House, Hammond — still a scientist emeritus after 40 years at the U.S. Geological Survey — has been busy with a flurry of presentations about his ancestry, reinterpretations of local history and policy advocacy.

His pandemic-era Zoom talks have included exploration of family patriarch William Syphax (circa 1773-1850), who bought his freedom in 1817 and set up a business next to the historic Carlyle House in Alexandria. This Syphax worked with a neighbor, Quaker pharmacist and abolitionist Edward Stabler, to save money to free the rest of his family.

Equally ground-breaking is Hammond’s talk on ancestor Nancy Syphax (circa 1791-1880), on her enslavement at Decatur House in Washington, D.C., and her being sold down to New Orleans. Last month, I heard his lecture on Louisiana ancestor Peter Joseph (1842-1906), named an elector for the controversial 1876 presidential election.

Hammond supplements stories passed down in the family with census documents, manumission papers and news clippings. His “Reconstructing a Family Narrative” approach is researched around his concept of FAN — family, associates and neighbors. A resident of Sterling, he gets help from his California cousin Donna Kunkel in keeping scattered Syphax descendants informed about Arlington House.

Joining the Arlington House Foundation helped Hammond pitch in when the National Park Service created its new exhibit on the enslaved community. The assertion that the plantation’s builder, George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) fathered at least one child with an enslaved woman is explored in a 2018 talk Hammond gave to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.

He also is conversant in the contributions of John Syphax (1838-1906), a leader among the formerly enslaved at Freedman’s Village near Arlington House. That Syphax in 1888 wrote to Secretary of War W.C. Bodicott to protest the “horrid” conditions at the government-run compound. The result: compensation for residents before the village was closed in 1900.

Hammond helps create family trees showing genealogical links between certain Syphaxes and Martha Washington, via Maria Syphax’s probable status as an illegitimate daughter of Custis. Her wedding in 1821 in the mansion, and Custis’s subsequent freeing of Maria and her children with a gift of land, are clues that bolster the oral tradition.

The Syphax descendants still hope for collaboration with Lee-Custis kin to compare results of DNA tests, as a sort of cooperative “truth serum,” Hammond confides.

Last fall he boosted legislation to remove slavery-defender and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the site’s official name. Calling it simply “Arlington House” would make the Park Service memorial “more inclusive of everyone who worked, lived and died there,” Hammond said. (Rep. Don Beyer plans to reintroduce the bill soon.)

And as our county board has empaneled volunteers to explore alternatives to the Arlington House logo, Hammond took a complex position. He doesn’t buy one board member’s notion that Arlington House, being federal property, isn’t linked to our modern community. Yet he would “encourage the Park Service to realize its responsibility to be more community-oriented and work with the county as a partner and stakeholder.”

Local history buffs recently inquired what became of the weapon used to assassinate American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell on Aug. 25, 1967, at our Dominion Hills Shopping Center.

The 1920s-vintage German Mauser semi automatic pistol used by convicted killer John Patler (a disgruntled Rockwell associate) remains in possession of the Arlington Circuit Court, I was informed by retired clerk of the court David Bell.

“There has been sporadic interest in it over the years, including by a couple of card-carrying Nazis,” Bell said of the item of evidence stored in an undisclosed location. “Because of its intrinsic and historical value, it has always been under an extra degree of security.”

Someday, Bell agreed, it might be given to the Arlington Historical Society, given proper security.