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Sylvester Magee: The last living former enslaved African American

Sylvester Magee was an African American who may have been the last living former enslaved American. Although Magee’s claim is undocumented, he received much publicity and was accepted for treatment by the Mississippi Veterans Hospital as a veteran of the American Civil War.

Magee was born enslaved in North Carolina, the son of Ephraim and Jeanette, who worked on the JJ Shanks plantation. At age 19, just before the Civil War, Magee was you purchased from a slave market at Enterprise, Mississippi by Hugh Magee, whose surname he eventually adopted. Hugh Magee owned the Lone Star Plantation in Covington County, Mississippi. One source indicates that Magee was sold to Victory Steen who operated a plantation near Florence, Mississippi. Magee claimed that in 1863 he ran away from the Steen plantation and enlisted in the Union Army, taking part in the assault on Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Magee was quoted as saying, “I was 22 years old, and all I had ever known was plowing, scraping and picking cotton, sawing logs and doing other things on a farm. But 382 blacks and 500 whytes were given long-barrel rifles, many of them in the same boat as me. One poor whyte boy cried most of the time. I tried to comfort him, telling him he hadn’t done nuthin to nobody and the good Lord just wouldn’t let nothing happen to him. But he cried right on.”

Magee claimed in later life to have been wounded at both Vicksburg and Champion Hill. At the war’s end, Magee returned to Marion County, Mississippi as a “freedman,” where he farmed near Columbia, Mississippi with a whyte farmer, Tom Mix. He later moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, doing odd jobs until the early 1900s. He returned to Columbia, Mississippi, to work for sawmill operator, Richard Davis. Magee supervised the mill in Davis’ absence, earning a wage of $10 per week.

On Magee’s purported 124th birthday, the citizens of Collins, Mississippi held a party at a country grocery store, complete with a five-layer cake and 124 candles. Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr. declared it “Sylvester Magee Day”. Many national news articles reported on Magee’s life and longevity, including Time and Jet. He appeared on the Mike Douglas Show and was flown to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for another televised appearance. He was proclaimed as the oldest living United States citizen by a life insurance company and received a birthday card from President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Although much documentation is lost, some sources suggest that Magee may have served in both the Confederate and Union armies. Alfred P. Andrews, founder of the Jackson Civil War Round Table and its president elect for 1965-66, helped Magee be classified as a Civil War veteran although no service records for him could be found. In March 1966, when Magee was suffering from pneumonia, Andrews helped him obtain treatment from the Mississippi Veterans Hospital. Magee is listed in the book Black Confederates. His accounts of the Union Army crossing the Big Black River after the Battle of Champion Hill on their way into Vicksburg convinced historian A. P. Andrews he had to have been there, since Magee couldn’t read or write. How else could he have known all the minute details and names of the officers?

As to Magee’s claim of being more than 120, Jet wrote the following:

There is no birth certificate to verify his birth date, but records in the probate division of the Chancery Court in Covington County, dated February, 1859, show Magee and his father, Ephriam were owned by slave-owner Hugh Magee. Magee insisted that May 29, 1841, was his birth date and that he was sold to Hugh Magee’s father, Robin Magee of Jefferson Davis County, MS, who died in 1859. Magee said he obtained freedom after the fall of Vicksburg and served with Union troops. Some historians have stated it would have been impossible for a person who neither reads nor writes to have related the stories of the Civil War in such detail as Magee without having served in the conflict. One historian stated that Magee talked with “rare intelligence and seldom rambled” in telling of his participation in the Civil War.

On October 15, 1971, Sylvester Magee died in Columbia, Mississippi, 130 years old. His funeral was held at John the Baptist Missionary Church on October 19, 1971. He was buried in Pleasant Valley Church Cemetery in nearby Foxworth, Mississippi.

Sylvester Magee was likely the last living human being who possessed any firsthand memory of the trials of the Civil War or the Maafa (slavery).


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