By Char McCargo Bah
John McKee was one of Alexandria’s most successful African Americans. At the time of his death in 1902, he was known as the wealthiest African American in not only the city but the country.
McKee was a free indentured servant in Alexandria when the city was still part of Washington, D.C. in 1838. Because all free people of color were required to register during that period, he registered as a free person of color at the courthouse. His 1838 registration described him as a “Bright mulatto boy, about 19 years old, 5 feet 4½ inches tall and was straightly built with light colored eyes. Betsey and Fanny Beckley stated in their oaths that John was born free.”
His uncle indentured him out as a bricklayer. McKee did not like the job, and he soon ran away to Baltimore, Maryland. His uncle found him and returned him to his job in Alexandria. In 1840, at the age of 21, McKee completed his contract and then migrated to Philadelphia where he found work in a livery stable.
While working there, he obtained a job as a waiter working for a well-known Black restaurant owner, James Prosser, on Market Street. McKee liked his job, and during that period, he also became interested in Prosser’s daughter. Soon after, McKee married Emeline Prosser. They took over the business until the Civil War, at which point McKee enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops in Philadelphia. He earned the rank of lieutenant colonel of the 13th Regiment under General Louis Wagner. From that time on, McKee was referred to as Colonel John McKee.
After the Civil War, John took his earnings from the restaurant business and invested in properties. In his lifetime, he owned 300 to 400 houses and was the founder and owner of McKee City of the West Jersey Railroad in New Jersey, a tract of 4,000 acres divided into 21 farms. In addition, he owned about 300,000 acres of coal and oil land in Kentucky and Logan County, West Virginia, and a tract of 21 acres at Fifty Street and Oregon Avenue in Philadelphia. He owned over 23,000 acres of land in two counties in New York, and 60 acres of land on the Delaware River and many other properties in other states.
Colonel John McKee died on April 6, 1902 at his home at 1030 Lombard St. in Philadelphia. His funeral was held at the Central Presbyterian Church and he was buried at Olivet Cemetery. McKee had one living daughter, Abbie P. McKee Syphax, at the time of his death, and six grandsons, both lived in Washington, D.C.
McKee’s family and friends were shocked to learn that he left the bulk of his estate to the Catholic Church and left his daughter, Abbie, a shabby house valued at $300. He also left each of his grandchildren $50 yearly. His millions were bequeathed to and administered by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which was headed by Archbishop Patrick John Ryan. McKee wanted his money to be used for building a Catholic church and for maintaining a charitable institution in Philadelphia for the education of both white and colored male orphans. In his will, he requested a Catholic funeral.
Abbie, who lived with her father and was his caregiver until his death, and his grandchildren contested McKee’s will and won an out of court settlement.
The Catholic Church used McKee’s money to provide scholarships for white and colored orphans. The church McKee wanted was never built but his fortune allowed for the creation of scholarships, which remained in existence for more than 100 years.
His fortune was estimated at $1.5 million to $4 million, but many people believed he was worth over $4 million at the time of his death.
McKee is remembered as one of the nation’s most successful African Americans. His accomplishments were remarkable for a Black man born in the early 1800s. But whenever Colonel John McKee’s name is mentioned, one immediately associates him with Alexandria.
The writer is a published author, columnist, freelance writer, independent historian, genealogist and a Living Legend of Alexandria. She maintains two blogs, http://www.theotheralexandria.com and http://www.findingthingsforu.com.