Protecting America’s Treasures: Black History in the Vault

Today’s blog post is by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist in the Textual Processing Division of the National Archives



A small portion of the millions of records at the National Archives are considered to be of such historic or intrinsic value that researchers are restricted from physical access to these materials. These materials are specially protected in the central and regional facilities of the National Archives and are kept in areas of restricted access which we refer to in College Park as the Vault. The Vault contains documents and artifacts from military and civil record groups (RGs), and donated collections. Some of these records pertain to African Americans in history and would be relevant to historical research.

One document in the Department of Justice records (RG 60) that has always struck me as particularly interesting is a letter from William Syphax to President Andrew Johnson written May 11, 1865 (National Archives ID 6782945). Written shortly after the end of the Civil War, Syphax relates the case of his parent’s land at the Arlington Estate (later to become Arlington National Cemetery) to the President. He claims that the plot of land his family has lived on for more than forty years was left to his mother, Maria, by George Washington Parke Custis – the original owner of the Estate. During the Civil War, parts of the Arlington Estate were confiscated to be used as a cemetery, and thereafter the Government acquired the entire estate in a tax sale. Facing eviction from their home, William Syphax was forced into action and wrote his letter to President Johnson. In 1866, a year after this letter was written, Congress approved an Act for the Relief of Maria Syphax, corroborating the family’s claim to the land and saving the Syphax home. This letter serves as an important document in the history of freed African Americans and illustrates the bonds of the African American family.

Letter from William Syphax to President of the United States


In the records of the Department of the Treasury (RG 56), the Vault has two personnel files of notable African American employees. William Johnson, who came to Washington, DC with Abraham Lincoln, was appointed to the position of laborer in 1861; and Solomon Johnson was appointed a position in 1864. Both men were recommended for their appointments personally by President Abraham Lincoln.

Letter from Lincoln to Secretary of Treasury on Behalf of William Johnson


Cover of Letter from Lincoln to Secretary of Treasury

As the child of a federal employee who ended up as a Government worker herself, these personnel files are familiar and fascinating to study. Included are generic form letters announcing promotions and pay increases, notices of death of the employees, but also letters written by Solomon Johnson asking to be recognized for his years of service to the Government. It is inspiring to see an African American man of those times represent himself with a strong voice and proudly list his accomplishments for the record. It sure makes performance appraisals easier for me.


Letter from Solomon Johnson to the Secretary of the Treasury.


These are a couple of the records relating to African American history that are kept in the Vault. Vault records receive more specific attention and are described down to the item level, but they remain part of the larger series of documents that are available to researchers to request and view in the research rooms. Although it is not in the Vault, there may be many other personnel files of African American Treasury employees in the unrestricted records and stacks that are just as informative and significant to the history.

6 thoughts on “Protecting America’s Treasures: Black History in the Vault

  1. Tish, your write up about these records brings these long dead federal employees to life! Do you think our personnel files will be so interesting a hundred years from now??

  2. Netisha,

    As usual, you’ve researched and have generously shared something I didn’t know. The more we document the interactions of our past, the more we can solidify the understanding of our nation as a whole.

    The closer we recognize our nation’s true history
    , the less we need to swallow it’s rendition as posited by the Texas manufacturer of our public school’s textbooks.

  3. One of the newest NARA blogs and already you’ve shared so many fascinating posts. Congratulations! Netisha, I enjoyed meeting you and Lopez last April at A1, when we chatted with Trichita, Patrice, and Lisha in 105. Your post, like Trichita’s, is fascinating and informative. I hope you put up some more. And Pat, you raise a good point about our personnel files. Lots of exciting things can happen in federal service–and then some, ha. Best wishes to all my friends at NARA, fabulous to see so much knowledge being shared so well.

  4. It sounds like William Syphax’s letter did not explicitly mention his family’s understanding that G. W. P. Custis had left that land to his mother Maria because she was a daughter. Maria Syphax’s mother had been enslaved as a maid in Custis’s estate. I can’t help but think that the government employees who handled this request would have guessed at the relationship anyway. During the brief period of Reconstruction, the American press was willing to discuss the pattern of plantation owners having children by women they enslaved, including G. W. P. Custis’s father Jack Custis.

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