An Archival Search for Sterling Brown (Part 3)

An Archival Search for Sterling Brown (Part 3)


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The tone of the South Carolina paper definitely supports  opposition

 to the Federal Writers Project. But that Southern state has long been

known for its conservatism and its reactionary politics.



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 3:

An Archival Search for Sterling Brown

Maria Syphax, Historical Revision, or a Communist Plot

By Rudolph Lewis


(Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 )

Newspapers carried the story of the Maria Syphax Case. The story spread like wildfire, as if some well-known Negro had killed a white woman or one who had molested a white male child. Through it all Sterling A. Brown was cool, possibly twirling his Phi Beta Kappa key, encircled by the uneasiness.

In large letters “‘George Washington’s Adopted Son Had Race Daughter,’ Guidebook Says” read one newspaper (name missing) dated 14 April 1939. 

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A heated debate rocked Capital Hill Friday when representative Keefe (Re., Wis.), took issue with a WPA guidebook which claims a kinship between George Washington’s family and Maria Syphax, Race maid to Martha Washington.

The ire of several congressmen has been aroused by the House debate which may rebound in the Senate with a bitter fight over supplementary appropriations for the WPA.

The guidebook of Washington prepared by the Federal Writers project, refers to George Washington Parke Custis [1781-1857], step-grandson and later adopted son of George Washington and father-in-law of Gen. Robert E. Lee, as the father of Maria Syphax [1803-1886].

In a chapter captioned “The Negro in Washington,” the guidebook, in relating the disposition of freed slaves states:

“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].”

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This newspaper covered the major aspects of the story, mentioning that the work on the Brown article was done by a group of writers under the direction of Joseph Gaer. The article goes further and quotes the authority on the Syphaxes, E. Delorus Preston, Jr. and his essay William Syphax, a Pioneer in Negro Education in the District of Columbia.” Preston was first to state in a learned journal: “Maria Syphax was the daughter of George Washington Parke Curtis.” It was stated not as a mere incidental, though it was indeed secondary to the story of the role William Syphax (son of Maria) played in the development of Negro education after the Civil War. Still it was stated with a delightful certainty.

The newspaper story ends, “Representative Keefe, who cited, the Congressional Globe, as a contradictory authority, calls the guidebook libelous and asks that Congress penalize on the WPA federal writers project.” The Maria Syphax [1803-1886]story had become, for the Republicans, a wedge issue in an appropriations battle and in an ideological struggle between the Democratic and Republican parties on the role of government.

In “Arraigns Writers Project,” the State newspaper of Columbia, South Carolina (15 April 1939) concluded  “looks as if the Writers’ Project has something to answer.” Without its own independent investigation, this southern paper  repeated the position of Congressman Franke B. Keefe of Wisconsin on the Maria Syphax Case. This “official” position (an “anti-communist ” one) became the position:


[George Washington Parke] Custis [1781-1857] was “the step-grandson of Martha Washington by adoption.” His daughter married Robert E. Lee. Custis, though he “abhorred slavery,” “when he came into his inheritance from his mother, did receive a considerable number of slaves. This young woman Maria Syphax [1803-1886] was the daughter of two old retainers who and served his grandmother and George Washington for many, many years. When she passed to him as part of his inheritance, he manumitted her, and upon her marriage he gave her a little 17-acre tract of land upon which she lived at or near the present Arlington.”

Of course, Representative Keefe of Wisconsin cannot any more prove with certainty “Maria Syphax was the daughter of two old retainers” than Professor Brown can prove with certainty that G.W.P. Custis [1781-1857] had a “colored daughter Maria Syphax [1803-1886].” The absolutism of both positions are untenable. But isn’t that indeed the peculiar nature of the discussion of race in America?

The tone of the South Carolina paper definitely supports  opposition to the Federal Writers Project. But that southern state has long been known for its conservatism and its reactionary politics. There was nevertheless indeed a FWP in South Carolina. An August 4, 1936 report on Negro employment — issued by J.H. Harman, Asst. Editor for Negro Affairs (Houston, Texas) —  concluded that of the 174 Negro writers, South Carolina had 10, a number as large as employed in Florida and New York City. New Jersey may  have employed  more Negro writers than any state with its 25. Illinois had 11. Georgia and Massachusetts had as few as 5. Despite its race politics, the state opted for the government funding.

The Director of Negro Affairs, Sterling Brown wears the mask of naiveté in his formal defense of his “final writing,” i.e., his sentence on the paternity of Maria Styphax. His arguments — on April 10 to Henry Alberg on Congressman’s Keefe’s Speech  and on Maria Syphax-George Washington Parke Custis relationship are extremely well-organized and reek with a delicate sophistication. Brown may have indeed been so trained and so much a part of the Black World that he was unaware  that he an agent of propaganda and believed sincerely he spoke as a critical, balanced, indifferent scholar.

Sterling Brown was indeed aware of the political opposition to the FWP. There were indeed Communists and communist sympathizers in the FWP. Brown was not so naive to think otherwise that there were those ready and willing to expose and eliminate the FWP.

In a letter from Wilfred R. Bain (11 May 1936),  Sterling read

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. . . there are several sub-projects within the New York FWP . the first to be established is what is known as The Reporters, with headquarters at 111-8th Avenue; another as the New York Guide or American Guide and still another as the Survey of Historical Records.

. . . . From what I can gather, it seems that The Reporters is the ‘pet’ project of the whole set-up. most of its workers are paid at the rate of $103.40 It is know to be almost wholly composed of Communists and their sympathizers. It was organized by Mr. Johns.

. . . . Another indication of favoritism is shown in the following illustration: Messers Poston and Moon, who were the promoters of the strike, which caused the Amsterdam News to change hands before it was settled, were discharged by the new owners. . . . another strike against the paper was being planned. . . . the plans were dropped, when Messers Poston and Moon received employment as members of The Reporters, the ‘pet’ NY FWP project. 

Although we are usually referred to when new Negro applicants apply, the Negro set-up was not officially informed that Messers Poston and Moon would be hired.

. . . Having satisfied himself, that the Negro group is not in sympathy, and do not intend to be a part of any Red revolutionary program, Mr. johns had decided to relieve us of the privilege to approve or disapprove new-comers to the project, and at the same time prevent us from having the moral support of non-reds.

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A year or so later Ted Poston and Henry Lee Moon also wrote Brown (29 June 1937; ), a joint letter, signed by both. They were on a first name basis with “Sterling.” Brown had enlisted them, as he had Christian in completing an assignment, in order to generate materials for his planned book, “The Negro as an American.” Poston and Moon now needed his help. Their grade and pay with “The Reporters” (the ‘pet’ FWP group) were reduced from Master Writer ($110.77 per month) to Senior Newspaperman ($95.44). 

Poston and Moon’s complaint was that in completing Brown’s assignment they would be doing more work: “It requires that we do our own research, writing and editing.”  More work and less pay. By this means, their improper hiring and sympathy for the communists and their sympathizers Brown could satisfy Bain’s complaint and his own needs. In any event, Brown knew that red-baiting was afoot as early as 1936, a year after the Federal Writers project began its operations. And from Bain he knew also the machinations in which Poston and Moon were involved.

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Before I go farther, allow me this apology. These archival documents I have collected should probably be in better hands than my own. I am not a Sterling Brown scholar. I know very little of his biography. I was told  once Sterling was born on Whiskey Bottom Road in Prince George County, not too far from College Park. Official documents say he was born and raised in Washington. So what do I know. I do like “Strong Men,” its insistent rhythms. Certainly, in his poetry, one senses Brown’s exquisite knowledge of southern manners and ways. Quite possibly his work and coming into contact with so much folk material his eyes and ears and body became attuned to the wonders and riches of Negro folk culture. 

In a note to Henry Alsberg (?) on 1 September 1937, Brown wrote “I had a very interesting sojourn in Georgia getting to the coastal section among the Geechees (Gullahs?) for the first time.” One senses that Brown more so than, let us say, Langston Hughes, became exceedingly steeped in Negro folklore and probably also in its edifying uses. Of course this too was a position argued by Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Negro folklore was not only entertaining, but had its own enhancing soul and spirit and history. And it also had its own peculiar perspective, that frequently ran against the ground of what usually went for American culture. 

So one might say that Brown carried that spirit into the writing of “The Negro in Washington.” (Again, I am a poor scholar in this matter. I have not read the essay in its entirety.) I am familiar with the few lines quoted by Representative Keefe in the Congressional Record. In addition  Also, I have not read Keefe’s full speech on the floor of the Congress. Still my presentation of these documents might be indeed of some scholarly value. It might be an intellectual in which to discover the “true Negro.”

In any event, the Maria Syphax Case is a little known American story, attached to other stories) that, for me, still resonates after over a half century. Maybe someone more resourceful will take up the gauntlet to further flesh out this tale. Will we ever know what Sterling was thinking when he chose to toss a bit of dirt into the smooth running wheels of government policies.

With a $2600 annual salary as an Asst. Professor of English at Howard University, Sterling Brown was near the top of the Negro heap, especially for Negro writers. Moon and Poston were making just over a thousand a year, and some still less. Brown knew everyone in the Negro World there was to know and in the white, also, especially editors. In folders, there were notes to Lillian Smith, editor of the North Georgia Review in 1939; Malcolm Cowley, editor of The New Republic; Randolph Edmonds, editor of The Arts Quarterly, Dillard University; President Albert W. Dent of Dillard and Grand Basileus of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. 

But he also knew those connected with The Harriet Tubman Publishing Company, Inc., and its editor-in-chief Roscoe Conkling Bruce; and its associate editors, William S. Braithwaite, Elmer A. Carter, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Kelly Miller, Arthur A. Schomberg, and Mary Chase Terrell.

Brown’s more personal letters in which the Maria Syphax Case is mentioned provide a contrast to the memos to Henry Alsberg. They also reveal yet another view of Brown and his attitude toward the rancor he has stirred by his remark on the paternity of Maria Syphax (1803-1886). 

See the 20 April 1939 letter to which he signs his name as “The Flying Dutchman.” One should note also that, with his 1-year NAACP membership, Brown was also on a first name basis with Walter White, the head of the NAACP. One still wonders whether Brown was calling for a real public discussion about miscegenation and especially that which took place during slavery. Wouldn’t we also have to talk about the rape of black women? The paternal abuse of the trust of his servants?

In a 21 April 1939 letter, Brown to a Mr. Dabney, we again see a much more relaxed and jocular “Flying Dutchman.”  One must assume his state of mind is one in which he has been pushed near the edge. Sterling wrote:


I have been very busy as you may have heard. In Washington, City and Capital, one of the guides of the Federal Writers’ Project I stated, oh quite casually, that George Washington Parke Custis [1781-1857] had a colored daughter. I am therefore accused of being a very bad Negro, in fact, a R E D. Alas!

. . . .  I’d like to talk to you about my being in the Congressional Record for stating what, except for a few books such as yours, has been left out of the record hitherto.

“I stated, oh quite casually” is a different kind of language than an “incidental reference” and the sarcasm of “being a very bad Negro” is also a different tone than that which we find in Brown’s two Alsberg memos, one defending himself against the charges of Congressman’s Keefe; and the other, a defense of his assertion that Maria Syphax was the colored daughter of Custis.  

In the 20 April 1939 letter to Walter White Brown exhibits a bit of unexpected bravura: 


I suppose you read of my being “red-baited” I mentioned miscegenation in connection with the founding fathers. Well, I’m sitting tight. That’s one aspect of American history of which I welcome a thorough-going investigation.

His welcoming a “thorough-going investigation” suggests that at times he views this situation with the Republican congressman as a personal matter, rather than one in which he has brought unneeded difficulties to the FWP, which was in the midst of a battle for congressional refunding. 

His self-reference as the “Flying Dutchman” may give us some hint of his state of mind. The romantic legend  speaks of the Dutch captain who blindly (self-blinded by his reverie) sailed into a storm and whose ship sank disastrously on the rocks. Sinking and near his own death, the captain utters a curse (a kind of empty bravura, possibly, that he will round the Cape of Good Hope if it takes him until doomsday. There have been, however, “sightings” of the ship and its captain in a storm.

What significance for Sterling Brown was the mask of the tragic Dutch captain? Was this Brown’s cute way of referring to himself as a “crazy nigger.” What a contrast the language of the two personal letters and that of the memos. 

We will resume this discussion up in Part 4, and attach further documents that we hope will add further to the richness of this exposition.

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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

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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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