Peter Joseph was born in New Orleans La. in 1842. The son of a slave, Margaret Syphax, and an Austrian merchant, Spaero Narravitch. His mother, Margaret Syphax, was a descendent of the prominent Washington, D.C. Syphax clan. Margaret had seen to it that the merchant paid her owner for the baby boy in order to secure Peter’s freedom at his birth.
Military pension records from the National Archives show that Joseph was drafted into the 92nd in 1865. However, family lore indicates Peter had also participated in the unsuccessful 1864 Red River Campaign that was designed to capture Mobile, AL. His involvement in this campaign was possibly as a civilian teamster. Soon after joining the army he was placed on detached duty as a teamster to aid in the mustering out of union soldiers at the wars end.
After separation from the Army, Peter became a passionate advocate for military training in the colored colleges to prepare colored men for possible careers in the military. He organized and led three independent military companies in New Orleans. In 1888 he was a Colonel in the First Battalion of Colored Troops in Louisiana. The Orleans Light Guard, with Peter Joseph as Captain, marched in the 1889 inaugural parade of Benjamin Harrison.
In 1875 he was a Captain in the New Orleans Metropolitan Police force. From 1881-1892 he was the Captain of the night inspectors of the U.S. Customs, Port of New Orleans, where he was described as “one of the most efficient officers in the employment of the U.S. Government at this port.” He later became very successful as a mason.
Peter Joseph was also active socially and politically. He was Grand Master of the Masonic Stringer Lodge and a member of the Grand United Order of the Odd Fellows. He served as President of the Grand Council of the Colored Men’s Protective Union which had considerable political influence. In 1876 Joseph was elected to serve as a Presidential Elector from the First Congressional District of New Orleans in what turned out to be a highly contested race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. He was allegedly offered a bribe of $100,000 to vote for Tilden, which he turned down.
Upon passage of Louisiana segregation laws and the increased intimidation of colored people, Peter moved his wife Cora and 4 children to Denver in 1892. Three older daughters who remained behind were teachers at the Southern University of New Orleans. Denver’s laws prohibiting construction of frame buildings was the ideal location for practicing his masonry trade. He became prominent in the Bricklayer’s Union and was vice president of the Denver Trades and Labor Assembly from 1893 to 1894.
Peter Joseph was a proud man who valued education and hard work. He passed these traits on to his children. His daughter Zipporah was the valedictorian at Manual Training High School in 1901. Initially she had been denied the opportunity to speak at commencement because of her color. Peter was able to finally convince the school board to reverse themselves and allow his daughter to speak. Peter’s military pension records shows that he worked as long as possible. He did not apply for a veteran’s pension until the year of his death. Peter Joseph was buried in a GAR lot in block 27 on July 17, 1905. Other family members, including my mother and grandmother both named Zipporah, are buried nearby.
By Stephen E Hammond (Great-great grandson)
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