HAMILTON HISTORYMAKER: Col. John McKee (1821-1902)

The Wealthiest Man of Color in America developed McKee City, Hamilton Township

Col. John McKee was both a Civil War veteran and visionary in the development of our South Jersey community. Born in 1821 in Virginia to freed black parents, he moved to Philadelphia at the age of 21. There, he married Emeline Prosser, the daughter of a successful Market Street restaurateur.  In 1863 he  enlisted in the 12th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry of the Pennsylvania National Guard. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 13th Regiment serving under General Louis Wagner. 


 In 1866, Col. McKee became involved in real estate, where he  helped freed slaves rent homes and lease property for farming. By 1870, his real estate holdings grew to $190,000. His  vast land holdings included 400,000 acres in Atlantic County,  400 properties in Philadelphia, 66 acres along the Delaware River, 23,000 acres in New York, and some 300,000 acres of coal, oil and farm land holdings in Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia. Col. John McKee was heralded as the wealthiest man of color in the country. By today's standards, his financial worth would be  roughly $52 million. 


In his 27 page will, Col. McKee's intent was to continue developing McKee City. Additionally, he set aside 10 acres of land for the Roman Catholic Church that would later be used to build St. Katharine Drexel Parish. He named  the Archbishop of Philadelphia executor of his estate as a result of the care he was administered when stricken with typhoid fever in 1896. He found that Catholic nuns would minister to him and other people of color suffering from the disease, while many other white caregivers would not. Presently Philadelphia's Roman Catholic Church is the sole trustee. 


In an attempt to ensure his legacy, McKee stipulated that a naval academy for orphaned young men be built, prominently featuring a bronze equestrian statue of himself.  He included a photo of himself in his Civil War uniform in the envelope when he was drafting his will in 1899. Due to legal wrangling, these two directives would not come to fruition. To the surprise of his own family, McKee was much less generous with his own family,  He bequeathed a gold watch and $50 annuity to his grandson and a shabby cottage rent free along with a $300 annuity to his surviving daughter. McKee's great grandchildren disputed the will in 1952, however their claims were dismissed by Judge Robert Bolger.


Today, little remains of McKee’s city. Many of the original buildings burned or were torn down. Part of the land holdings became what was the former Atlantic City Race Course and the Hamilton Mall. Bill Boerner owns the last remaining farmhouse from McKee City, which his family purchased nearly a century ago. He still grows apples and other produce on his Pleasant Valley Farms property off  Route 40 in Hamilton Township.


Col. McKee died on April 6, 1902 of a paralytic stroke at the age of 81. His legacy continues to fund an estimated 20  $250,000 scholarships yearly for fatherless boys of the five county areas of Philadelphia both on the college level and for vocational training. McKee is buried at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a few miles outside Philadelphia. 

http://mckeescholars.org/pdfs/McKeeWill.pdf   See pages 22-24

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