A Hattiesburg man who claimed to be the nation’s last living slave at 130 years old has sparked the interest of Max Grivno, University of Southern Mississippi associate professor of history.
Grivno was doing research about the history of slavery when he began seeing 1960s newspaper clippings about Sylvester Magee.
“He became, really, something of a celebrity in the 1960s,” Grivno said. “A lot of the research I’ve been doing is to try to track his life. I’ve spent time in county courthouses, going through old newspapers and the federal census.”
In 1965 amateur historian A.P. Andrews visited Hattiesburg to interview Magee, who was living in a ramshackle house in the city.
“(Andrews) concluded he was born in 1841 and was the oldest living slave,” Grivno said. “That story spread to the wire services and in magazines.”
Grivno said newspaper stories about very old slaves were popular at the time, but none was so numerous or sustained as those about Magee.
As Grivno began to try to reconstruct Magee’s life and history, he was surprised to find a treasure trove of documents in Special Collections at Southern Miss’ McCain Library and Archives.
Curator Jennifer Brannock said the library has two boxes of folders, scrapbooks and audio recordings of interviews with Magee. The collection was given to the library in 2013 by William Scarborough, a friend of Andrews’ widow.
“I looked at it when it came in to see what the collection was about,” Brannock said. “It’s fascinating — the whole mythology of it — that there’s this possibility of a 130-year-old man — the oldest, living slave. Counties put that in their records.
“Professor Grivno’s take on it is much more critical than before. He puts (the information) through the wringer.”
Brannock said Grivno is the first person to look at the collection. Grivno said before that it sat unexamined for 40 years in Scarborough’s home.
Grivno said it’s a shame no one researched Magee’s life earlier.
“Very few people have tried to validate the story,” he said. “It was a story that was left where it was.
“There’s a real tragedy to this. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were more people alive who would have known about Sylvester Magee. Now the trail has kind of gone cold.”
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SOURCE: USA Today
Ellen Ciurczak, Hattiesburg (Miss.) American