William Syphax School

This historically black elementary school commemorates William Syphax (1825-1891), the first president of the Board of Trustees of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown.

William Syphax was born in 1825 to Charles Syphax and Maria Carter. Charles, Syphax’s father, was enslaved by a man named George Washington Parke Custis, grandson and adopted son of George and Martha Washington. Maria, Syphax’s mother, was also enslaved and the suspected daughter of Custis. As an infant in 1826, Syphax, his mother, and older sister were freed and Maria was given 17 acres of Custis’ Arlington estate (His father was later freed after Custis’ death). Charles and Maria had ten children together, all of whom lived as free people on the Custis property. As they grew up, Syphax and his siblings attended private school in DC and Alexandria.

William Syphax was the first African American appointed to the Board of Trustees for Colored Schools in the city, which was established after emancipation in DC during 1862. He served on the board from 1868 to 1871 as its chairman and later, the treasurer. Syphax was a proponent of a unified public school system, and a vigorous advocate for equal educational standards. He oversaw construction of the Sumner, Lincoln, and Stevens Schools (the first African American schools considered equally designed to those built for white students). During his tenure, DC also saw a significant increase of African American educators. 

The original Colonial Revival school, built in 1901 (Marsh & Peter, architects), is a fine example of the public schools that the D.C. Office of the Building Inspector commissioned from local architects. The large 1941 addition (also in Colonial Revival style) by Municipal Architect Nathan C. Wyeth follows the “extensible” prototype created by his predecessor Albert L. Harris; this was further expanded in 1953. The building illustrates both the progressive civic design ideals of the turn of the century, and the modernization and expansion of the public schools during wartime mobilization. Like similar neighborhood schools throughout the city, it establishes a municipal presence in the local community. The original 2-1/2-story building is hip-roofed, with red brick facades, arched windows and white terra cotta trim; the 2-story additions are flat-roofed, with red brick facades, banks of multi-pane windows, and limestone trim.

DC Inventory: April 22, 1999
National Register: July 25, 2003



1360 Half Street SW