A broad swath of the nation separates Arlington National Cemetery from Sacramento, but if you visit it, as I did on a recent vacation in Washington, D.C., you'll hear about local businessman Scott Syphax's ancestors.
Now a resting place for U.S. veterans and dignitaries, this cemetery was once the Arlington Plantation built by George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of the first U.S. president. Parke Custis was reared as a son by George and Martha Washington upon the death of his father. Parke Custis left Arlington to his only surviving child, Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
None of this surprised me, but what the ranger said next did. He explained that Parke Custis had given some of his land to the Syphaxes, slaves whom he had freed. I recalled that the chief executive of Sacramento's Nehemiah Corp. had family in D.C.
So I queried Scott Syphax upon returning to work, and he explained that Parke Custis gave the Syphaxes 17 acres of land and, following the Civil War, the Syphax family endured lengthy legal and legislative hurdles to reclaim the land.
"My late father, Charles Sumner Syphax III, lived in Sacramento until his passing in 2001," Syphax said, "and he was actually the last resident with his grandparents on the grounds of Arlington up until they sold the final piece of land to the federal government in the 1940s."
Syphax, a graduate of Sacramento's John F. Kennedy High School, said he works today to put Americans into homes because property ownership helped his family fund college educations and businesses.
"My role at Nehemiah is not a job," he said, "it is a vocation. I, and the other members of my family, are the beneficiaries of those acts from centuries ago that gave people an opportunity to own their piece of ground and to use that ground for the upward mobility of their children."
Why would Parke Custis be so generous to a slave? According to Syphax family tradition, the National Park Service explains on the Arlington House website, Parke Custis fathered Mariah Carter Syphax with one of his slaves. She is an ancestor of Scott Syphax.
Author on a mission
Sacramento author James Rollins is taking on a mission of critical importance, ensuring that his latest spy thriller lands in the top 5 on the New York Times' best-seller list this summer.
The book, "Bloodline" (William Morrow, 464 pages, $27.99), goes on sale Tuesday, and you'll find Rollins at 7 p.m. that day at Roseville's Barnes & Noble, 1256 Galleria Blvd.
The mission Rollins has assigned himself is pitching the books that he labors over in solitude. The Roseville appearance is one of several that will take him to Dallas, Phoenix, Chicago and 10 other cities in three weeks to recruit readers and satisfy longtime fans.
A book tour was the elusive golden ring when Rollins started his career in 1999, but these days, his rigorous tour schedule 3:30 a.m. wake-up calls, early morning flights, signings all day interspersed with radio and TV interviews, then 7 p.m. talks feels more like a gantlet than a victory lap.
"I've been in hotels where I've forgotten what the hotel room is," he said. "I had to go to the front desk to ask."
The author talks, however, make it worthwhile, Rollins said.
"I had one very pretty young woman step up to me and bare her back to me," he said, "and one of the symbols that was very prominent in my last book, she had it tattooed on her side. ... You want your book to leave an imprint on somebody, and there it was, literally imprinted on her."
Die-hard Rollins fans will recognize the tattoo as Seichan's signature dragon.