What makes Marion County thrive? Rich folklore

By BRANDI PERRY,

Just off of Mississippi 586 in Foxworth behind Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church stands the 4-foot-tall gravestone of a man who claimed to be America’s last living slave.

Sylvester Magee, according to accounts he gave before his death in 1971, was born in Carpet, N.C., in 1841. He said his parents were slaves and he worked on the J.J. Shanks Plantation with them until he was 19 and was then sold to Hugh Magee, who owned the Lone Star Plantation in Covington County.

When the Civil War started in 1861, Magee said he served as an arms-bearer to his master, which made him a de facto Confederate soldier. Sometime between 1861 and 1863, Magee said he was sold to the Steen Plantation in Florence. But not long after arriving there, he said he ran away and made his way to the North, where he enlisted in the Union Army. Magee then claimed that while serving in the Union Army, he fought in the Battle of Champion’s Hill and the Vicksburg campaign.

“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,” Magee said of his time in the Army.

After the war Magee said he returned to Mississippi as a freedman and found work on a farm in Columbia. He would perform odd jobs for anyone that would hire him until he found steady work at a sawmill for $10 a week.

Sylvester’s life went on rather uneventfully until he turned, at least according to his own accounts,124 years old. The year was 1964, and an amateur historian named A.P. Andrews made the trip to Hattiesburg to interview Magee. Once news hit the airwaves that he was supposedly 124 years of age, the national media came calling. Today, this full interview is available from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in written form. In 1965, Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson declared “Sylvester Magee Day” in Collins when a birthday party was held in his honor. That same year a life insurance company declared him the oldest living United States citizen, and President Lyndon B. Johnson even sent him a birthday card.

In 1967, he boarded his first airplane to make a television appearance in New York. Not long after that he went to Philadelphia to be on the Mike Douglas Show.

Apparently, longevity ran in his family as he said in one interview that his mom lived to be well over 100 years old. When asked about his longevity, he would simply say, “It’s the good Lord above. ... He’s smiling down on me.”

During Magee’s life, he had three wives and reportedly had his last child when he was a whopping 109.

In February 2012, the Marion County Historical Society erected a tombstone on Magee’s grave, which had remained unmarked since the time of his death.

Former museum curator Chris Watts said, “The last few years of his life he was courted heavily by the national media. He was in Jet magazine, there was an article about him in Time magazine, and he was on the Mike Douglas television show. He was very well known the last few years of his life. So far as documentation goes, there are not a lot of reliable sources to suggest that he was not who he said he was. But it is clear that to the historians of the 1960s, that according to some of the things he said, he had to be exactly who he says that he was.”

Even though there isn’t any hard evidence to back up his claims, there were many people and organizations that did believe him. Andrews, who was also the founder of the Jackson Civil War Round Table, had this to say, “Sylvester Magee is classified as a veteran of the Civil War. Historians believe it would have been impossible for Magee to have relayed such detailed accounts of Civil War battles without having lived through them, especially considering the fact that he was completely illiterate.”

But some historians who have researched the case cast questions about the veracity of Magee’s claims. The University of Southern Mississippi is home to the collection of research by Andrews, the amateur historian who first publicized Magee’s story, and Southern Miss history professor Max Grivno has studied it.

Grivno said in a news release issued a few years ago by USM that Andrews’ research was “questionable at best” and that Andrews “may have been chasing glory by being the man who found the last surviving Civil War soldier and slave.”

“In the recordings I’ve listened to, Andrews asks incredibly leading questions of Magee. Clearly Magee is telling Andrews what he wants to hear because much of what Magee claims has been refuted,” Grivno said in the news release.

Grivno found a marriage license application from 1949 that listed Magee as being 60. That would have put Magee being born in about 1889 and about 82 at his death.

Another USM historian, William Scarborough, was the one who originally received Andrews’ documents and also questioned Magee’s claims.

“I doubt that he was that old,” Scarborough said in 2016 according to a story in the USM Student Printz. “I doubt that he was a part of the Civil War. Andrews thought he was the genuine article. He ignored the evidence that was contrary to his point of view or he twisted it to his own ends.”

While the circumstances of Magee’s birth remain unclear, more is known about his death. His colorful and historic life came to an end on Oct. 15, 1971, a little after midnight just a day after suffering a stroke. He said he was 130 years of age at the time of his death and if he truly was everything he said he was, the nation lost a powerful piece of American history that day. And even if not, his claims proved to be an interesting slice of Southern folklore that found its end in Marion County.