Skip to content

At noon on Wednesday, February 21, as part of the department’s History Is Lunch series, Max Grivno will present “The Last Slave: Sylvester Magee in History and Memory."

“As Mississippians commemorated the centennial of the Civil War and struggled through the most intense and violent years of the Civil Rights Movement, an aged man from south Mississippi captured the nation’s attention when a handful of local historians and journalists claimed that he was the last Union veteran, one of the last surviving ex-slaves, and the oldest living American,” Grivno said. “From 1964 until his death in 1971 at the remarkable—if undocumented—age of 131 years, Sylvester Magee of Hattiesburg became something of a celebrity. His story was splashed across newspapers throughout the country. He received birthday letters from presidents Johnson and Nixon, appeared on nationally televised programs, and once had his birthday declared Sylvester Magee Day by the Mississippi Legislature. But was any of it true?”

Based on the papers of historians who attempted to reconstruct his life in the 1960s, along with records of the planters who may have held the Magee family in bondage, Grivno will examine what we can know about Sylvester Magee.

“While the evidence suggests that Mr. Magee was born sometime in the 1890s, the stories that swirled around him and the historians who investigated his case are, nevertheless, important,” Grivno said. “Regardless of his actual age, Mr. Magee opens a window onto how Mississippians—both black and white—remembered slavery a century after emancipation, how they attempted to situation stories of slavery within the Freedom Struggle of the 1960s, and how conversations about slavery shape our present.

Max Grivno is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He was named the 2016 Humanities Scholar of the Year by the Mississippi Humanities Council. His book Gleanings of Freedom: Free Labor and Slavery along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790-1860, was published in 2011 by the University of Illinois Press. Grivno is currently writing From Bondage to Freedom: Slavery in Mississippi, 1690-1865, which is under contract with the University Press of Mississippi as part of the Heritage of Mississippi Series and is researching a third book, tentatively titled Bandits, Klansmen, Rioters, and Strikers: Violence in the Alabama-Mississippi Black Belt,1830-1917.

The program will take place in the Craig H. Neilsen Auditorium at the Two Mississippi Museums—the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum—located at 222 North Street, Jackson, MS 39201. There is no charge to attend. For more information call 601-576-6998 or email info@mdah.ms.gov.

UPCOMING PROGRAMS

February 28—Heather Wilcox, Mount Olive: Preserving and Restoring a Historic Cemetery.

March 7—Gene Dattel and Otis L. Sanford, Reckoning with Race: The Perspective of Two Native Mississippians.

View All News Releases