THE LAST LIVING FORMER AMERICAN SLAVE
…He Died Only 50 Years Ago
Since a person born into slavery typically lacked birth certificates, Magee’s purported age of 130 has never been verified. However, Jet magazine 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”.
Sylvester Magee (claimed May 29, 1841 – October 15, 1971) claimed to be the last living former American slave. He received much publicity and was accepted for treatment by the Mississippi Veterans Hospital as a veteran of the American Civil War. If this claim were true, Magee would not only have been the last surviving American Civil War veteran, but the oldest person to have ever lived.
Magee claimed 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. He said that he was purchased at the age of 19, just before the American Civil War, by plantation owner Hugh Magee at a slave market in Enterprise, Mississippi. Hugh Magee owned the Lone Star Plantation in Covington County, Mississippi. Sylvester adopted the Magee surname, a common practice among enslaved people at the time. Shortly afterward, he was sold again, to Victor Steen of Rankin County, 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 claimed to have been forced to serve in both the Confederate and Union armies as a servant and laborer. 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. In March 1966, when Magee was suffering from pneumonia, Andrews helped him obtain treatment from the Mississippi Veterans Hospital.
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, and was also recognized by president Richard M. Nixon.