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June 19, 2013
By the time you read this, Sylvester Magee will have a monument at the head of his previously unmarked grave. The ceremony for the placement of the marker was late in February, scheduled at that time so it could occur during Black History Month. And if the things I’ve been told about Sylvester Magee are true, then he was a pretty historic black man.
He is buried in the graveyard at the Pleasant Valley Methodist Church in Foxworth. Mr. Magee died back in 1971. Ike Smith wasn’t much more that a kid back then when he helped the elderly community grave digger dig Mr. Magee’s grave. He said there were a lot of photographers around the funeral, but he didn’t pay too much attention to them. He told me that it was only later that he realized Mr. Magee’s significance.
I’m not exactly sure when the events of Mr. Magee’s life started becoming extraordinary. Nothing happened to him early on that hadn’t happened to thousands of other black men of his day. All he had to do was outlive them. But as each one passed, Sylvester Magee became more unusual.
And Sylvester Magee’s “day” was way back there. He always claimed he was born on May 29, 1841. That would have made him 130 years old when he died in October of 1971. Just that fact alone is remarkable enough. If it is true.
Problem is, people usually don’t live to be 130 years old. So why should anyone believe such a claim made by an old man who couldn’t even read or write?
Well, the fact that he couldn’t read or write is partly what convinced historian A.P. Andrews (Andrews was instrumental in organizing the Jackson Civil War Roundtable) that Mr. Magee’s claims were true, since he couldn’t have read and memorized the facts of history that he seemed to know so well. Little things only an eyewitness would recall.
Sylvester Magee said he was 22 years old when the Civil War started and that he ran away from the plantation where he was a slave near Florence in Rankin County. He joined the Union Army at Vicksburg. It was his detailed accounts of the Battle of Champion Hill and how the Union Army crossed the Big Black River on a pontoon bridge after the Confederates burned the railroad bridge and the ability to name the various officers in charge of the Siege of Vicksburg that convinced Andrews that Sylvester Magee had to have been there. He was so convinced that he helped Magee obtain medical treatment for pneumonia in 1966 as a Union veteran at the V.A. Hospital.
The town of Collins pitched a party for him on his 124th birthday. Gov. Paul Johnson declared it Sylvester Magee Day in Mississippi. Presidents Johnson and Nixon sent him birthday greetings through the years.
So accepting the stories handed down as true as certified by historians, census records and what scant government records can be found, Sylvester Magee would have been the last slave at the time of his death. And having served with the Union Army at Champion Hill and Vicksburg, he would have been the last Union veteran, too. But what makes him even more unusual is that he may have gone to war with his owner on the side of the South at the beginning of the war. If so, then that would have also made him the last Confederate veteran.
The last slave, the last Union veteran and the last Confederate veteran. It should be a pretty big monument to commemorate all of that.
Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and "Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories."
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