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
Suzette Charles was our own Miss America, born and raised in Mays Landing, New Jersey. She was a Presidential Scholar her senior year, graduating from Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in 1981, then earning a full scholarship to Temple University. She competed and won the title of Miss New Jersey, going on to compete in the 1984 Miss America pageant. Early in the competition, she won the Preliminary Talent, winning first runner-up of the pageant overall. After the reigning Miss America Vanessa Williams was forced to resign that July, Suzette replaced her as the new Miss America for the remaining seven weeks of the reign. She went on to carve out a career as a singer, entertainer, and television personality.
In later years she married an ophthalmologist and plastic surgeon, Dr. Leonard Bley and raised her family including two children. She is still active with the Miss America Organization.
Mays Landing's first African American citizen was beloved by the children and residents who knew him for his candy shoppe on the corner of Farragut Avenue and Main Street. He owned and operated Underhill's, where they called him "Old John" until 1913. In the early years of the 20th century the KKK had a prescence in South Jersey, particularly in Mays Landing, but Underhill's neighbors safeguarded the man they would later refer to as 'Our Citizen'. His funeral in 1925 included lying in honor in his bronze casket in the Atlantic County Courthouse, followed by a mile long procession to his final resting place in Union Cemetary, Mays Landing.
The estate of John Underhill (valued today at $1,425,000.) was left to the the town of Mays Landing, who's stated wishes were to build a gymnasium for the new school; a fountain and benches in downtown War Memorial Park and play areas for children of the community, now Underhill Park.
Representatives of Mays Landing choose to use the newly acquired property to construct the (first) Mays Landing Country Club. Later, in 1962, Leo Fraser designed a new club and relocated to a 135 acre tract in Hamilton Township, while an even bigger attraction was being developed in Mays Landing, post World War II. The property John Underhill invested and also gifted to his hometown would later become the Atlantic City Race Course (ACRC).
When ACRC opened on July 22, 1946, as the Atlantic City Race Course, it was primarily the work of four individuals. The most famous of the group was John Kelly Sr., (Olympic Gold Medalist and father to Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco), created the race course together with Fred Scholler, Glendon Robertson and James "Sonny" Fraser. Shareholders included show business personalities Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Harry James, Sammy Kaye and Xavier Cugat.
On August 1, 2 and 3, 1969 an estimated 100,000 people attended the Atlantic City Pop Festival at the race course, two weeks ahead of Woodstock. A ticket for the entire three day weekend was $15. The overwhelming turn out was an unexpected and controversial state of affairs, as local government agencies and police departments were strained beyond their means.
In 2015, Atlantic City Race Course closed, as gaming in other states saturated the market. The era of horse reacing in South Jersey was over on January 16th of that year. A portion of the property is now home to the Hamilton Mall and several restaurants, including: Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse and Chili's, as well as the BAM Shopping Center.
The grandstand and track remain in a state of decline.