Sylvester Magee (29 May 1841? – 15 October 1971) was a man who allegedly among the last living former American slaves. He received much publicity and was accepted for treatment by the Mississippi Veterans Hospital as a veteran of the American Civil War.

Magee was purported to have been born in North Carolina in 1841 to slaves Ephraim and Jeanette, who were held and worked on the J.J. Shanks plantation. Magee said that he was purchased at the age of 19 just before the American Civil War by Southern plantation owner Hugh Magee at a slave market in Enterprise, Mississippi. 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 whites were given long-barrel rifles, many of them in the same boat as me. One poor white boy cried most of the time. I tried to comfort him, telling him he hadn't done anything to anybody 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 white 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 or possibly never existed, 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.

Jet wrote that, according to historians, "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". Jet quoted a historian who 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 at the claimed age of 130 years and 142 days. 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.

Sources

  • Bobbie E. Barbee and Leahmon L. Reid, "Why 125-Year-Old Husband Sues for Divorce", Jet Magazine, March 30, 1967, pp. 46–49
  • "Gerontology: Secret of Long Life", Time Magazine, 14 July 1967
  • "Funeral Services Held Tuesday For The Last American Slave", Columbian-Progress obituary, October 21, 1971
  • "America’s Oldest Citizen Dies in Mississippi at 130", Jet, 4 November 1971, p. 10, reprinted in Magee, Kenneth F. (April 1994). The Magee Family History; As I Found Them. Copy in State of Mississippi Archives: Self Published, 1994. p. 44.
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