The life of Sylvester Magee has intrigued many over the past several decades and the man who claimed to be 130 years old at the time of his death was something of a national sensation. Though dozens of accounts have been written about him, not much is actually known about the man who claimed to be the last surviving American slave in the early 1960s.
Dr. Max Grivno, an associate professor of history at The University of Southern Mississippi has uncovered fascinating new information about Magee and is attempting to reconstruct Magee’s life and history. He will share his findings Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. in Cook Library’s Art Gallery when he presents “The Last Slave: The History of Sylvester Magee.” Grivno will also present the lecture Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. at the Marion County Public Library.
In the course of writing a history of slavery in Mississippi, Grivno stumbled across press clippings from the mid 1960s about Magee, who had been reported to be the oldest living former slave in the United States. Grivno discovered the source of the collection of clippings was an amateur historian named A.P. Andrews. Grivno, intrigued by the particularly insubstantial research by Andrews, contacted Jennifer Brannock, Curator of Rare Books in Mississippi at USM Libraries, to find out if she had any materials about Magee or Andrews.
As luck would have it, not only did the materials exist, but the University is home to Andrews’ entire collection of research, which was donated to the University in 2013 from former Southern Miss history professor Dr. William K. Scarborough, who received it from Mrs. A.P. Andrews the mid 1970s. The collection of photos, letters, notes, oral histories and more from Andrews’ widow sat undisturbed in an archival box for over four decades before Grivno shook off the dust and took a look inside.
“It really is an amazing collection,” Grivno said. “What you have is basically a man’s life in a box, though I’ve learned more about Sylvester Magee’s family than about Magee himself. There is actually very little confirmed information about Magee, but I hope to uncover more as I continue the research in Marion and Covington Counties.”
What is also interesting to Grivno is the research of A.P. Andrews, which Grivno says is questionable at best. Andrews was an amateur historian who 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 believes friends and family of Magee are out there, and his continued research could find the truth behind one of south Mississippi’s long-standing and intriguing mysteries.
For information about the USM Department of History and Dr. Grivno’s work at Southern Miss, visit https://www.usm.edu/history/faculty/max-grivno.