Evelyn Reid Syphax moved to Arlington in 1951 with a teacher's certificate from Virginia Union University and a head full of philosophies spun by her mother.
"My mother always told me I should know how to do more than one thing," said Syphax, 58, a retired public school teacher, former Arlington County School Board member and owner of a private child-care center. "She taught me about . . . helping others without thought of personal gain, about rendering volunteer service."
With the rhythm of her mother's voice to spur her own, Syphax has become a lifelong volunteer and community activist. "I just can't sit and do nothing," said Syphax, who sleeps only three or four hours each night. "I have to be involved. I am especially interested in young people. Helping them is important in my life."
When Syphax discovered there was no preschool in Arlington for black children, she opened one. When she found no local chapter of a predominantly black sorority in Northern Virginia, she started one. Then she used the sorority to raise money for food and clothing for the needy and to give scholarships to black students.
In 1956, she married Archie Douglas Syphax, a member of one of the oldest black families in Northern Virginia. One of their first activities as a married couple was to try to eat at the segregated lunch counters at F.W. Woolworth and Peoples Drug stores in Arlington.
"Just the two of us went," Syphax recalled, seated in the living room of her brick home in Arlington View, where she has lived for almost 25 years. "It wasn't a popular thing to do then. At Peoples the employes, black and white, just . . . looked at us, then finally a white lady came and said . . . 'Honey, what can we do to help you?'
"My husband said he would like an ice cream soda and I would like a soft drink. The woman said . . . 'The law said we can't serve any nigras and we don't want to cause trouble.' I said, 'I don't want to cause you any either.' We sat there a little longer and left."
It was basically the same at Woolworth. "We were just two people who decided to do this," said Syphax. "We were in the area and we wanted something refreshing. We didn't want to get anybody else involved."
Together, she and Archie built the Syphax Child Care Center, which opened in 1963 and is still at 1806 Ninth St., South Arlington. The Alexandria-Arlington chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which she started with only 24 members two decades ago, is 200 members strong now. In 1980 Syphax, who retired after teaching for 25 years in public schools, was appointed to the Arlington County Board of Education. Her term ended last July.
"I thought she would make a good School Board member because she was used to dealing with people . . . . She knew and understood education and I knew she was a person of integrity, a religious person," said Dorothy Grotos, the former Arlington County Board member who nominated Syphax to the School Board. "I knew she would be honest and straightforward . . . . She is also a business woman, which is a good approach to have, too."
While Grotos is a Republican, Syphax remains "nonpartisan. I'm not a card-carrying member of any party," the educator explains. "I believe in individuals, I vote for the individuals."
Torill Floyd, who served on the School Board with Syphax, said of her: "In her decisions, she always seemed to go with her heart and conscience but she was also very practical and politically astute."
Syphax disagreed with the school system's practice of busing black children out of their communities to integrate schools, saying travel time was too long for the younger children. To prove her point, she spent days following school buses to clock the time it took for some of the riders to reach the school.
"I was successful in getting a plan where special consideration is given to first, second and third graders who have to travel far," said Syphax. "Now they can attend a school closer to them if they want to."
She moved to Arlington in 1951, leaving her home town of Lynchburg, Va., because of low teachers' salaries. Then, life for a black person in Virginia was "just difficult," whispers Syphax, a plump woman with lively green eyes and reddish-blonde hair. The mother of two adult sons, she and her husband, a retired firefighter, live in a neighborhood well-cared-for older homes skirting busy Columbia Pike.
The youngest of three children born to John Baptist Reid, a minister, and his wife, Pauline Vaughan Reid, Syphax earned money to pay for her college education by baby-sitting, working in a library and working with a caterer. Her mother, to whom she was devoted, died while Syphax was a college senior. Syphax moved to Arlington shortly after graduation.
Syphax earned her master's degree in early childhood education from New York University by attending the school's night classes taught in the District. She was still teaching in Arlington when she tried to find a preschool program for her 1-year-old son and found, "There was no place I could send him."
She applied for a license to open her own day-care center, for ages 2 to 6. "The application asked what race will this school serve," she recalled. "I wrote in "international." I wanted the school to be for all children.
There are 70 children enrolled at the school. The student body as well as the staff remains international. Syphax gets calls at her house daily from parents trying to get their children enrolled at the center.
While running the school, she continues her community work. She travels out of town every week, she said, to serve on advisory committees on youth and education. She is on the board of trustees at her alma mater, Virginia Union. She is president of the Arlington County chapter of the Coalition of 100 Black Women, a service organization working to improve the economic and political status of black women.
In 1981 she received the Arlington County award for "Most Outstanding Woman," given by the Inter-service Club Council, a group of predominantly white service organizations in the county.
Syphax doesn't gloat, but she is proud of her accomplishments. She talks fondly of initiating in the public schools a program "that will decrease enrollment in special education classes by taking underachievers and placing them in programs heavy on communication skills and math."
Her eyes light up when she talks about how she got funding for the cultural arts center that provides activities for both seniors and youths in her community.
The list grows daily. Evelyn Reid Syphax, with her mother's voice in her ear, will never give up.