By Ryan Pierce

Benjamin Sands, Jr. (left) and Craig Syphax
(right), Guest Speaker, at the SWNA 2020 Black
History Program at Arena Stage; Courtesy of Author

This year’s SWNA Black History Community meeting in February provided the community with a wonderful new insight on the history behind one of our more prominent local names, William Syphax. Mr. Craig Syphax, a direct descendent of William still living in the Washington area, presented the story of his forebears and how they came to Southwest D.C. from nearby Northern Virginia. Craig currently resides in Arlington but was born in the District at Georgetown University Hospital, and spent some of his formative years here before his family moved to Northern Virginia. 

He told the story of how William Syphax was born into slavery on the Custis plantation, now the Arlington House, then freed as a child and educated in the private school system. He eventually became a prominent local figure and landowner in Southwest, and was the first African-American appointed to the Board of Trustees for Colored Schools in the District. There he played a large role in expanding educational opportunities and facilities. 

Craig highlighted the story of William’s parents, wife, and children – all of whom had roles enhancing the family’s impact in the area. He also included some of his own personal work in promoting local history with the Black History Museum of Arlington, Arlington House, and other heritage efforts in Arlington and Alexandria. Some of Craig’s work is captured in a documentary film, Syphax, Rising from the Crucible of Slavery, which is currently working on a sequel to.

The second portion of the evening focused on musician and local educator Benjamin Sands, Jr, who shared his story of growing up in Southwest. Sands received a SWNA Scholarship to cover the cost of his first saxophone while attending Howard University. After which, he went on to a successful dual career in music, playing with several groups, and in education as the Director of Music at Calvin Coolidge High School where he has taught for over 36 years. He also performed a few pieces, including a new arrangement he is working on. 

All this great programing was arranged and emceed by Thelma D. Jones, long time community leader and Chair of the Youth Activities Task Force and Black History Subcommittee of the History Task Force. Arena Stage graciously served as our host once again in their wonderful venue. 

We want to thank all of our wonderful neighbors who came to hear these presentations and engage in some thoughtful Q&A with the presenters. 

Ryan Pierce is chair of SWNA’s History Task Force.

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