An Archival Search for Sterling Brown

An Archival Search for Sterling Brown


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




Franke B. Keefe was fully in his rights as an officer of the government to ask another officer

of the government, in particular Professor Brown, who has made a public statement

concerning the family of a well-beloved president and a revered father of the country

Sterling Brown                                                                                                                                                          Maria Syphax



  Books by Sterling Brown

Southern Road / The Negro Caravan / The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown  /

The Negro in American Fiction; Negro Poetry and Drama  / Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narrative Poems

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Books about Sterling Brown

Joanne,Gabbin. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1994)

John Edgar Tidwell, Sterling A. Brown’s A Negro Looks at the South (2007)

Charles Rowell. Callaloo’s Sterling A. Brown: Special Issue (1998)

Mark A. Sanders. Afro-Modernist Aesthetics & the Poetry of Sterling Brown (1999)

Mark A. Sanders. A Son’s Return: Selected Essays of Sterling Brown (1996)

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Part 1:

An Archival Search for Sterling Brown

Maria Syphax, Historical Revision, or a Communist Plot

By Rudolph Lewis


Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 )

I knew nothing of Maria Syphax (1803-1886) of Arlington, Virginia, nor anything of her story or the stories that politicians or literary theorists, or historians may have made of her life. I stumbled onto pieces of her story about seven years ago in the unprocessed papers of Sterling Brown at Howard University. I copied ten to fifteen documents that tied together Sterling Brown’s literary relationship to the story of Maria Syphax and Wisconsin Congressman Frank B. Keefe’s accusation of a communist plot directing activities in the Federal Writer’s Project. 

Maria Syphax was the colored great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, Sterling Brown wrote rather matter-of-factly as if the facts of the assertion were self-evident. In a 1 March 1939 letter, Franke B. Keefe made a formal attempt to contact Professor Brown:

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Frank B. Keefe

6th District Wisconsin 

Congress of the United States

House of Representatives

Washington, D.C.

March 1, 1939

Professor Sterling Brown,

Howard University,

Washington, D.C.

Dear Sir:-

     I am advised that you are the author of the essay: “The Negro in Washington”, which appears in the Government Publication “Washington, City and Capital”, issued by the Works Progress Administration.

     As a student of Washington history I am impressed and interested by the following statement which appears in this essay, to-wit:

They were settled in Arlington in a place known as Freedman’s village, very near a tract left by George Washington Parke Custis [1781-1857] to his colored daughter Maria Syphax [1803-1886].

     The above quoted statement appears on page 75 of “Washington, City and Capital”, and I would appreciate it if you would furnish me with the source of information on which you base the assertion made by you and the Works Progress Administration that George Washington Parke Custis had a colored daughter.

                         Thanking you, I am

                                                 Very truly yours,


                                                   Frank B. Keefe

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Brown did not respond to Keefe’s letter, immediately. One wonders about his six-week delay. Brown must have immediately called to mind his intellectual defenses against all kind of fears — the fallout that this matter would have on him professionally. He probably wanted to know who was Frank B. Keefe and his interest in this story. He was a southern. But Keefe was indeed a Republican of Wisconsin and from a small rural community (Winnebago County, maybe 70,000 residents). A lawyer, and firs-time congressman, probably out trying to make a name for himself.

Keefe pointed out that government money had sponsored the publication of Brown’s article on the Negro, so what impact, Brown must have asked, his paternity assertion, would have on FWP funding.. Though he was an English professor at Howard University, Brown was no longer an independent scholar (covered under academic freedom), he was a government employee, the Negro Affairs officer of the Federal Writers Project of the WPA, and thus answerable to the government for his writings and political positions. Brown must have found himself indeed in a curious intellectual state.

By the summer of 1937, Sterling Brown had made plans to write the definitive book on the Negro in America, based on materials he was collecting or would collect through his office from the various states that had Negroes on their rolls doing research and writing on materials that they found locally in their states. This book project too would suffer if the FWP went south. This “independent” Negro project was an addition to the initial plans of the FWP. (See Sterling Brown’s form letter used to seek Negro advisers to the FWP.) But now it had grown to have more importance than they imagined. (See letter Walter White to Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

My first hint of this Negro FWP operation came through the discovery of letters between Brown and Marcus Bruce Christian, a New Orleans poet and then a member of the Dillard Project of the LA-Federal Writers’ Project, headed by Lyle Saxon, a Louisiana writer with a more sentimental view of the Southern past than that which a conscientious “New Negro” would allow or feel fully comfortable (See Selected Letters). The Dillard FWP writers aimed at writing a “history of the Negro in Louisiana,” which was finished but never published. There were indeed a Negro in Virginia and a Negro in Illinois published.

Of course, Franke B. Keefe was fully in his rights as an officer of the government to ask another officer of the government, in particular Professor Brown, who has made a public statement concerning the family of a well-beloved president and a revered father of the country, George Washington. The small matter (“incidental”) was more than merely a simple statement that Maria Syphax (1803-1886)was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857). 

Despite all the arguments regarding evidence, a factual statement on the paternity of Maria Syphax was  an attack, however subtle, on the moral hypocrisy of America’s founders, their moral duplicity, their closets of skeletons, and, naturally, their “jumping fences.” The Negro writers wanted, in the words of Brown, to give “Negro’s contributions to the economic and cultural development of America” an “extensive treatment.” How could one indeed avoid altogether the touchy subject of miscegenation?

Doubtless, Brown himself must have known that he was making use of a government funded program to promote a revised sense of American history. He hade mad the point himself in his enlisting of Negro advisers:  Negro writers were there on the FWP to ensure that “Negro subject-matter” receive “fair treatment” and presented as “unbiased and as accurate as possible.” 

In that two ideas cannot occupy the same place of predominance, this plan of using FWP Negro materials to constitute “a more true picture” of the Negro (the words of Walter White to FDR) and “to establish that mutual respect which is necessary if democracy is to survive” is, in short, quite an undertaking, and indeed a lot of weight to be placing on a single government program.

The expectation of such program seems in all out proportion to the initial notion of providing employment and the collecting and documentation of material. This kind of social engineering would indeed and did  threaten the traditional image Americans possessed regarding the Fathers of their country and the Negro himself, and other more sentimental versions of slavery and Reconstruction. But to drag through the mud the name of Jefferson is however of a lesser magnitude than that of efforts to smear George Washington and his family.

So Brown’s 10 April apology fails to reveal to Keefe his mind and thinking on what the purpose and intent of his article “The Negro in Washington.” Brown condescended a response to Keefe only after the Wisconsin congressman made the matter public on the floor of Congress:

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Howard University

Washington, D.C.

April 10, 1939


The Honorable

Frank B. Keefe

Washington, D.C.


My dear Mr. Keefe:

     In the Congressional Record for Thursday April 6, 1939 I read your statement that I had not acknowledgement your letter of march 1, 1939. That statement was true.

     I apologize for my negligence. The source of information which you requested had already been sent to you, however, and there was nothing that I could at that time add to it. Waiting for new information, and working on a very rigorous schedule, I postponed replying to you, until the matter slipped my attention. I realize that this is no excuse fo[r] my discourtesy.

     Concerning the repeated telephone calls I an [sic] quite at a loss. There is generally someone in the English office who will take down the telephone numbers of those calling, or their messages. perhaps you called the history department. I am not a member of their staff, but of the English department.

     I apologize for my negligence.

                                                    Very truly yours,


                                                     Sterling A. Brown

*   *   *   *   *

Maybe Brown hoped that his “incidental reference” would fade away in the mind of the Congressman  Keefe. But it did not. The Republican organized an opposition in both the House and the Senate and made Brown’s “literary crime” (“libelous” assertions) public. The Baltimore Sun reported the story and the Honorable Robert R. Reynolds of North Carolina had the SUN article “W.P.A. Guidebook Arouses Fuss” entered into the Appendix of the Congressional Record.

The argument that Sterling Brown presents in two memos to Henry Alsberg, the head of the FWP, is indeed a curious defense. I will present those in yet another file: Henry Alsbery  (Memo 1) and Sterling to Henry Alsbery  (Memo 2).

Maria Syphax Case Table  Part 2 and Part 3Part 4 )

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.


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Weep Not, Child

By Ngugi wa Thiong’o

This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their country—the teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.—Penguin 

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 29 June 2008 




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