Colonel John McKee: Wealthiest African American At His Death in 1902

By Rebecca Bayeck,Ph.D, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for African American and African Studies
September 29, 2020
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

An article from The Philadelphia Inquirer1, published on April 08, 1902, announced the death of Colonel John McKee with the title: “RICHEST COLORED MAN PASSES AWAY,2” and subheadings: "Colonel John McKee, Whose Wealth Is Estimated at $2,000,000, Victim of Paralysis. VETERAN OF CIVIL WAR. Owned Many Houses in City and Acres of Farm Land, But lived Unostentatiously”. The article title points to Colonel John McKee’s financial status and achievement. The subtitles detail his acquisitions, the cause of his death, his military background, while giving insight into how he was perceived and read in 19th and early 20th century American society. “Owned Many Houses in City and Acres of Farm Land, But lived Unostentatiously”.

Who was Colonel John McKee?

John McKee (Figure 1) was born to enslaved parents in Alexandria, Virginia around 1819 where he lived until the age of 21.  Records of John’s registration in Virginia in 1838 reads “John McKee is a bright mulatto boy, about 19 years old, 5 feet 4½ inches tall, who is straight built with light colored eyes. He was born free, as appears by oaths of Betsey Beckley and Fanny Beckley” (Winfree, 2019). This registration indicates that John McKee was born free, even though some historians contend that he was enslaved and set free in his teens. Besides this disagreement on his status at birth, researchers agree that John was a bricklayer before leaving Virginia. During his indenture as a brickmaker, John ran to Baltimore, Maryland, and was brought back to complete his apprenticeship. 

Figure 1. Studio portrait of Colonel John McKee, Cartes-de-visite collection, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Little is known about John’s parents except for the fact that one was probably white, given that he was registered as “a bright mulatto boy.” After completing his indenture, John left for Philadelphia at age 21 where he worked in a livery stable, then with a successful Black restaurateur James Prosser on Market Street. John married Prosser’s daughter, Emeline, and later ran the restaurant until 1866. Using the capital provided by his wife, he invested in real estate, started buying houses, and became a real estate mogul.

Becoming Colonel John Mckee

When the Civil War started, John joined the National Guard of Pennsylvania, and courageously fought for the North. He rose to become the Colonel of the 13th Regiment3 in 1870, which consisted of Black volunteers who fought for the North during the Civil War, in the 5th Brigade under General Louis Wagner.4 John also became the Colonel of the 8th New Jersey Colored Regiment. Veteran of the Civil War, he later became known as Colonel John McKee.

Colonel John McKee’s wealth

Colonel John McKee was a real estate tycoon. On April 12th, 1902, a few days after his death, the Baltimore Afro American Ledger5Newspaper published the following article: “A COLORED MILLIONAIRE.: WHO OWNED THOUSANDS OF ACRES OF REAL ESTATE PASSES AWAY”. The introductory paragraph (Figure 2) reads:

John McKee, Philadelphia’s Richest Negro dead. – Owned More Than 300 City Houses Unencumbered – Founder and Owner of McKee City, New Jersey, and Thousands of Acres of Real Estate Elsewhere – Was at one Time Colonel of Militia – Was Possibly the Wealthiest Negro in the Country.

Figure 2. The  Baltimore Afro American journal  on Colonel McKee, April 12, 1902. The New York Public Library

The third paragraph, in the same article (Figure 2), gives more details:

In this city, Colonel McKee at the time of his death owned from 300 to 400 houses each of them unencumbered. He was the founder and owner of McKee city, on the West Jersey Railroad, N.J., a tract 4,500 acres, divided into twenty-one farms. He also owned about 300,000 acres of coal and oil land in Kentucky and in Logan County, West Virginia; a tract of twenty-one acres at Fifth street and Oregon avenue, in this city, over 23,000 acres of land in Bath and Steuben counties, New York; a farm of sixty-six acres at Croydon, on the Delaware River, beside many other properties in Pennsylvania and other states. In the management of these and other properties he had been assisted for the last thirty years by his secretary Raymond J. Burr.

Similar details on John’s wealth were provided byThe Philadelphia Evening Telegraph6 of April 8, 1902 titled “Col. John M’Kee Dead: Wealthiest Colored Man in This Country Passes Away at 80 Years”. The Philadelphia Inquirer, on the same date, April 08, 1902, printed a declaration by Mr. Raymond Burr,7 McKee's secretary, as follows:

Speaking last night of Colonel Mckee’s wealth, Mr. Burr said that he had owned 300 houses in this city, worth at least half a million dollars, and that he possessed two hundred thousand acres of ore, farm and coal lands in Martin and Johnson counties, Kentucky; Logan county, Illinois, and in West Virginia, beside farm lands in Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Among his holdings was a splendid farm of 66 acres, near Croyden, Bucks county. In New Jersey he owned the whole settlement of McKee, on the West Jersey Railroad. The town consists of twenty-two farms of acres each, besides 1800 additional acres, and on each farm, he had erected buildings valued at $2500, a total of $55,000.

The extent of Colonel McKee’s wealth was not questioned in the 19th century, and even after his death. He was a treasure and a point of pride for the African American community as shown by excerpts of letters giving information on Colonel McKee’s wealth, published in the Negro History Bulletin 8 of April 1948. The letters seemed to be responses to requests from Booker T. Washingtonand Robert E. Park of the Tuskugee Institute in Alabama.

Joseph P. McCullen,10 on February 23, 1909, wrote (Figure 3) the following to Booker T. Washington:

Estate of John McKee, Deceased.

Hon, Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama,

Dear Sir:

Your favor has been received and in reply thereto I would state that the State Appraiser fixed the valuation in Estate of the late Colonel John McKee as follows: Personal estate…$71,644.29. Gross valuation of real estate in Pennsylvania... 271,188.33. Making together …342,832.62. Net valuation of the above …. $212.831.86.

Of this, $46,500 is in unimproved real estate from which, at this time, no income is derived. In addition to the above the Estate owns the following from which no income (or but a nominal income) is derived: —a lot in Gloucester County, New Jersey, valued at One hundred Dollars ($100) a large area of land in Atlantic County, New Jersey, known as McKee City, assessed for taxation at twenty-thousand six hundred and fifty dollars ($20,650) and a tract of coal and mineral lands in Kentucky, which Colonel McKee always considered would turn out to be valuable and would eventually realize a considerable sum. It is assessed for taxation for 1909 at Seventy thousand Dollars ($70,-000)—.

Figure 3. Letter to Booker T. Washington in response to  his inquiry about Colonel John  McKee's wealth.  Journal of Negro History, 1922

Reading this letter, one cannot help but wonder about Booker T. Washington interest in Colonel McKee’s estate. Could it be that the Institute was expecting or hoping to receive money from Colonel McKee’s estate given that another letter was sent in response to Robert E. Park’s 11  initial letter by T.J. Minton (Figure 4) with additional information:

You state you would be glad to have any information I can give you about Mr. McKee, particularly in regard to the amount of the estate he left at the time of his death. The value of Mr. McKee’s estate has been variously estimated from $1,000,000 to $4, 000, 000. I am not able to give a more exact estimate as I have not seen any inventory made by his executors. He owned more than 300 houses in this city, all unencumbered. He also owned oil and cola lands in Kentucky and West Virginia, and lands in Bath and Steuben Counties, New York. … If you desire a more exact estimate of the value of his estate, I would suggest that you write Joseph P. McCullen, Jr., No. 1008 Land Title Building, this city.

Figure  4. Letter to  Robert E. Park in response to  his inquiry about Colonel John  McKee's wealth.  Journal of Negro History, 1922

Colonel McKee in his time stood out not only because of his wealth, but also because it wasn’t common nor easy for Blacks to acquire such wealth in a country where they were considered unintelligent, lazy, and incompetent.

Colonel John McKee’s Legacy

            Colonel McKee died of a paralytic stroke on April 6, 1902 in his residence at 1030 Lombard Street. He was survived by his only daughter Mrs. Abbie A. Syphax, her five sons, and the child of his deceased daughter. In his will, Colonel McKee gave the majority of his wealth to the Catholic Church, leaving his family with practically nothing in comparison. For instance, the Negro History Bulletin of May 1948 explained that he gave an annuity of $300 to his daughter, and willed $50 yearly to all his six grandchildren. His heirs contested the will in courts and finally settled out of court with the Church on May 21, 1902. John desired his wealth to serve two main purposes: a) build a Catholic church rectory and a convent in McKee City New Jersey;  and b) maintain a charitable institution in Philadelphia for the education of both white and black male orphans. However, the consternation and disappointment caused by Colonel McKee’s will could be felt at his funeral and was captured by newspapers at the time. For example, the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph of April 28, 1902, titled “MINISTER DENOUNCES THE LATE COL. M’KEE: The Rev. Dr. McGuire Declares “the Infidel Stands Higher with God Than Such” published excerpts of the sermon preached by Rev. G. Alexander McGuire: 12

 If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than the infidel...By this passage, St. Paul asserts the obligations that spring out of family relationship, especially the duty of supporting dependent relations...You may have the greatest funeral pomp and ceremony over the dead body of such a man, yet if he has not provided for his own the text may well be an inscription on his tomb: He hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel. No self-respecting persons can become the executors, no religious body can consistently accept his gifts, when he denies a decent shelter to a child and cuts off dearest kind with a few paltry dollars.

Another newspaper that gave insight into the dismay and frustration of the Black community was the Richmond Planet Newspaper 13  of April 19, 1902. The newspaper printed this: “The COLORED MILLIONAIRE:  PECULIAR ANTIPATHY TO HIS OWN PEOPLE - RELATIVES CUT OFF - THE CATHOLIC CHURCH RECOGNIZED -Mourning Friends Permeated With Disgust – The Will to be Contested in the Courts.”

Even though the reading of Colonel McKee’s will disappointed many, his wealth helped establish a school for fatherless children of all races, and today, John McKee scholarships established in 1955 assist students who meet the conditions set by the Court under his will. The John McKee City of New Jersey no longer exists, yet the greatest legacy of Colonel John McKee is to have dared, and have succeeded in a business area where Blacks were nonexistent in the 19th century. He was a pioneer who paved the way, even unknowingly, to other investors a century after.  

Notes and References

1 Journal born from the partnership between John Norvell and John R. Walker, respectively editor and printer, which first issue was published on Monday, June 1, 1829.  Available at General Research Division, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library

2  Font size is based on original article

3 The 13th Regiment was organized in Nashville, Tennessee, on November 19, 1863, which designation will change to 85th U.S. Colored Troops on Aril 4, 1864.

4 Louis Wagner was a German-born young officer, lithographic and printer, who came to the U.S. in 1849. In early 1863, he volunteered to take command of Camp William Penn, the first and largest Federal training facility for African-American soldiers. General Louis Wagner commander the colored brigade of Guardsmen when John McKee was colonel. The brigade consisted of the 11th, 12thm and 13th Regiments.

5 First Black newspaper with war correspondents in World War II, and the longest-running family-owned African American newspaper in the United States. Established in 1892 by John H. Murphy, Sr. veteran of the Civil War, the journal reported local news, stories, and challenged injustices faced by African American citizens including Jim Crow laws. Copies can be found in Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph was a daily afternoon newspaper started on January 4, 1864, by brothers-in-law Charles Edward Warburton and James Barclay Harding. Politically, the journal was Republican and in favor of the federal government. 

7 Besides being Colonel McKee’s secretary, Raymond Burr was also the Colonel who commanded a new regiment born out of the consolidation of the regiment 13th, 11th and 12th after Colonel McKee’s retirement. 

The Negro History Bulletin was founded in 1937 by Carter G. Woodson, an African American also founder of the Journal of Negro History in 1921 and of the Association for the Study of Negro life and History. He promoted the study of African Americans past and present through all his publications. Further information, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

9 Educator, writer, founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. More information, Booker T. Washington correspondence, bulk 1889-1913, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

10 Joseph P. McCullen, was Colonel McKee attorney whom he designated along with the catholic archbishop Ryan as executors and trustees of his estate.

11 Harvard graduate of Philosophy in 1899, where he taught Philosophy. From 1905-1914, he worked with the Tuskegee Institute, first as publicist and later as director of public relations of the institute.

12  Presbyterian minister, and rector who preached at St. Thomas’ Protestant Episcopal Church during Colonel McKee’s funeral. 

13 African American owned journal created by 13 former enslaved Blacks from Richmond, VA, with issue published in 1882. First editor was Edmund Archer Randolph, first African American to graduate from Yale Law School. 

Edwards, G., Bedford, R., McCullen, J., Minton, T., & Bacas, P. (1922). Letters Collected by R. E. Park and Booker T. Washington. The Journal of Negro History, 7(2), 206-222. doi:10.2307/2713526

Winfree, A. (2019). Footprints of African Americans in Alexandria. United States: Trafford Publishing