Sangamon County
African American Biographies

Rev. Dr. James H. Magee [1839-1912]

Rev. Dr. James H. Magee wrote a semi-autobiographical book which he published in 1873 while serving as a pastor of the Union Baptist Church in Cincinnati, OH.

He studied at the Pastors College of London, England during 1867-68.

Magee was born the son of a former Kentucky slave in Madison County one year before Illinois was officially a “free” state. His father, Lazarus, had to purchase his mother, Susan, from her owner in Louisville, KY, from whence they went to Upper Alton and thence to Macoupin County where they were able to purchase land.

The Magee children were denied educational opportunity equal to that of the white children of Macoupin County, and so they were sent to Racine, WI, for their schooling. On completing his education, Magee taught in a Jerseyville school for black children, was ordained a minister of the Baptist Church, and held several small pastorates, including one at the Zion Baptist Church in Springfield in 1864. He did not stay there because the senior pastor refused to yield the pulpit to his junior assistant. Later that same year, he attended a Baptist convention in St. Louis, where, he says, “I had much conversation about the one object of my desire….education…Time passed on and still my thirst for learning increased. I happened to think of a plan by which I thought I should be able to facilitate the obtaining of much wanted treasure.”

Magee’s plan took him to Toronto, where he continued his education while serving one of the largest black Baptist churches in Canada. He states in his book: “Although an American born subject, I must confess that I felt more at home the very first time my feet ever trode upon British soil than I ever felt in American.” It was his sad duty to preach a sermon on April 14, 1865, when news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Toronto, which, he says, “was a vast house of mourning.”

Magee’s desire to study under Spurgeon was so great that although he had been denied admission, he nevertheless sailed on May 18, 1867, from Montreal, aboard the “noble steamer Hibernain,” to personally implore the rector for a place of study. He succeeded and, a year leater, returned to Canada with a private library given to him by Spurgeon himself.

John M. Palmer, Jessie Palmer Weber, Secretary of State James A. Rose, and Gov. [Richard] Oglesby were willing to accept and reward Magee despite the lack of respect by the bulk of society.

In Springfield, Magee formed the Illinois State Colored Historical Society, held the presidency of the Ambidexter Institute, which was a manual-training school, and continued to lecture and preach the Gospel. He publicly castigated the school board in 1906 for denying valedictorian honors to a young African-American girl who had rightfully earned the distinction and for barring students of color from commencement exercises.

Magee spent the last 12 years of his life as a messenger for the state printer’s office, which was under the aegis of his friend, James Rose.
[Source: "The Illinois Times" - April 28, 2005 - Written by Bob Cavanagh]


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