Sylvester Magee (May 29, 1841 – October 15, 1971) may have been the last living slave in America, and the oldest person who ever lived! Born a slave in North Carolina, he was the son of slaves named Ephraim and Jeanette, who worked on the J.J. Shanks plantation.
At age 19, just before the Civil War, Sylvester was purchased from a slave market at Enterprise, Mississippi by Hugh Magee, whose surname Sylvester eventually adopted. Hugh Magee owned the Lone Star Plantation in Covington County, Mississippi. One source indicated that Magee was in time sold by Magee to Victory Steen, who operated a plantation near Florence, Mississippi. Sylvester eventually ran away from the Steen plantation and joined the ranks of the Union Army. Concerning the siege at Vicksburg, Mississippi he stated, “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-barrell 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 nothun to nobody and the good Lord just wouldn’t let nothing happen to him. But he cried right on.” Sylvester further stated he received wounds at both Vicksburg and Champion’s Hill.
After the close of the Civil War, Sylvester returned to Marion County, Mississippi a “freedman” and farmed near Columbia, Mississippi with a white farmer named Tom Mix. In coming years, he moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi and did odd jobs until the early 1900’s. He returned to Marion County, Mississippi and worked for Richard Davis, who operated a sawmill in East Columbia. Magee was trusted to the extent that he supervised the mill when Davis was absent, and earned $10 per week. Little is known of his life after this period until the 1960s.
On his 124th birthday, some citizens of Collins, Mississippi threw a party for Magee at a country grocery store, complete with a five layer cake and 124 candles. Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr. declared that day “Sylvester Magee Day.” Many national news articles were written about his life and longevity, including Time and Jet Magazines in 1967 and 1971. He appeared on the Mike Douglas Show (which never aired) and was flown to Philadelphia, PA for another TV appearance. He was said to have been the oldest living citizen of the United States by a life insurance company, and even received birthday cards from two sitting U.S. presidents, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.
Though so much documentation is either lacking or never recorded in the first place, some sources suggest that Magee may have served in both the Confederate and Union armies during the war. The stories Magee told of the war were convincing enough that he was admitted for treatment to the Mississippi Veterans Hospital.
Alfred P. Andrews, founder of the Jackson Civil War Round Table and its president elect for 1965-66, helped Sylvester be declared a Civil War veteran when no service records could be found. In March, 1966, while Magee was ailing with pneumonia, it was Andrews who helped Magee obtain treatment from the VA hospital.
Though his age was uncertain, Jet Magazine also stated; “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 insists May 29, 1841, was his birth date and that he was sold to Hugh Magee’s father 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.
Magee died on October 15, 1971 in Columbia, Mississippi. His funeral was held at John the Baptist Missionary Church on October 19th. Magee was buried in the Pleasant Valley Church Cemetery in nearby Foxworth, Mississippi.
On February 23,2012 at 11:00 a.m. in Foxworth, Mississippi there will be a memorial service and a monument dedication for Mr. Magee.
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Updated: Go to www.wdam.com, the web-site for local NBC T.V., click on “News 7 Top Stories”. Then go down the column until you see “Unmarked Grave Is Now A Historical Marker”. You can watch the news story.
From Randy Davis a member of The Marion County Historical Society and lives in Foxworth, MS., and contributed this story to the HW Network