“Passing” & the Will of Colonel McKee

John McKee, was an African American born free in Alexandria, Virginia in 1821; apprenticed as a bricklayer, he worked in a livery stable, a restaurant and dabbled in real estate until 1866, when he turned to investing in real estate full time.

McKee reportedly fought in the American Civil War and in June 1870 enlisted in the 12th Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard being promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 13th Regiment in 1872.

When he died he was called “the wealthiest negro in the United States” with extensive mineral and real estate holdings including 300 rental properties in Philadelphia; his estate was estimated to be worth anything from $1,500,000 to $4,000,000,at the time. A son Henry Minton, daughter, Abbie Syphax, and six grandsons survived him.

McKee’s Will dated December 8 1899 left his daughter Abbie a modest house and a legacy of $300, with $50 for each of her children. His son Henry also received a $50 legacy; the residue of the estate was to be held in trust until after the death of his children and grandchildren living at the time of his death, when it was to be used for the establishment of a school for “poor colored male orphan children and poor white male orphan children (and by the term ‘orphan’ I mean fatherless children)” between the ages of twelve and eighteen to be known as Colonel John McKee’s College.

Although he wasn’t Catholic the Will named as executors and trustees of his estate his lawyer and the Archbishop of Philadelphia. Apparently notwithstanding his wealth when he contracted typhoid fever in 1896 Catholic nuns cared for him and other persons of color suffering from the disease, while many other white caregivers would not.

His Will asked that he be buried with his wife, however it was read after the funeral took place so his wishes were not carried out.

Abbie and Henry disputed the Will receiving respectively $26,500 and $25,000. In exchange for releasing any further claim on the estate Abbie later received $110,000; she remarried in 1904 and was reported to be “the richest colored woman in this city, and perhaps in the world.”

In the 1940’s it was believed that all of McKee’s grandchildren had died. A notice was placed by the executors and trustees that Colonel McKee’s estate was up for final disposition in the Orphans Court at Philadelphia asking for any surviving heirs to come forward.

A successful Wall Street lawyer T John McKee, who lived as a white man for forty-five years stepped forward to claim the estate of his grandfather.

T John McKee provided proof he was Abbie’s son born Theophilus John Minton Syphax; he  had a light complexion, had changed his name in 1904 and passed as white. He cut off relations with his family and married a white woman with whom he had two children. However he died in August 1948 prior to inheriting the estate.

The Court considered the estate to be inadequate to establish a school in accordance with the exact terms of the Will. Colonel McKee’s great grandchildren argued for an intestacy; the Court found that since the purposes of the Will could not be fulfilled precisely as Colonel McKee had specified, the estate should be used for the purpose most nearly approximating Colonel McKee’s educational goals, and directed that it be used to establish scholarships to fatherless young men of all races from the Philadelphia area in Pennsylvania.


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