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Old 07-20-2005, 06:56 AM
lhovis73 lhovis73 is offline
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at what age did the last known American slave die?

I just learned from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary that the last veteran of that war died in the late fifties. This made me wonder if we knew the name of the last person who had once been a slave in the US. I did a bit of internet research and found the story of Charlie Smith, a former slave who (supposedly) lived to the age of 137 (born in Liberia, 1842, sold into slavery at age 12, died 1979). I started looking for more information on this guy, but it seems like the same story (which strikes me as completely unbelievable) is repeated everywhere. I also checked out the Guinness Book of World Records and found that the oldest man ever died at age 120 (oldest woman, age 122)...no mention of Smith there. And I read somewhere that a number of guys popped up in the 50s claiming to be extremely aged Civil War veterans, but were later exposed as frauds. Of course, this story sounds as believable to me as a Bigfoot sighting...and yet, his story is told with a straight face on a number of seemingly legit websites (African American history websites, etc.). I even found a college history quiz that asks what age the last known slave died at — “Charlie Smith, age 137” is the answer.

Anyway, my original question has now split into two. I’d still like to know who the last American slave that we know of was (assuming that Charlie Smith’s story is BS). And now I also want to know if anyone has done any serious investigation of this Charlie Smith character and tried to get the straight dope on his story. (Why anyone would want to live to age 137 is beyond me...but that’s another issue.)
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Old 07-20-2005, 08:06 AM
bonzer bonzer is offline
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Charlie Smith's story was discussed in this old thread, which is well worth a read even though it doesn't come to a definitive answer.
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Old 07-20-2005, 08:36 AM
Spectre of Pithecanthropus Spectre of Pithecanthropus is offline
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There may not even be a definite answer. Recall that slavery was legal and persisted in the border states until 1865. An infant born to a slave mother just before that time was legally a slave at birth, but became free before reaching his/her first birthday, so would have no memory of being a slave. The youngest Civil War vets were in their eighties by the 1920s. Assuming that former slaves old enough to remember at least single-digit childhood in slavery were born in the 1850s, the oldest of them must have lived until around 1950s or 1960s.
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Old 07-20-2005, 01:32 PM
Mr. Slant Mr.  Slant is offline
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If you'll accept black persons in the US held in involuntary servitude after the conclusion of the civil war, I would imagine the answer to this question might be that some of them may still be alive.

"...a man, now 104 years old, out of rural Louisiana, asserts that his family was still in slavery in the 1960s."
-- from an article in the Sacramento Observer dated 06/13/2003, link http://www.sacobserver.com/news/comm..._slavery.shtml
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Old 07-20-2005, 05:50 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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Does it strike anyone else that Liberia would be a most unlikely place of birth for a man later sold into slavery? Given Liberia's history, it would seem to me incredibly unlikely that the slave trade would have been legal or even plausibly easy there.

And even if Charlie was indeed the longest-lived of the American slaves, that does not necessarily imply that he was the last one alive. 1842 is a good long ways before the abolition of slavery in the U. S.; a slave child born in 1865 could have had a total span considerably shorter than that attributed to Mr. Smith, and still survive him.
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Old 07-20-2005, 07:56 PM
samclem samclem is offline
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In the previous thread, Sampiro said
Quote:
The last CONFIRMED slave was Mary Walker (1853-1969), upon whom THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN was partly based. There is a foundation in her honor; a google for "mary walker foundation" will find info on her, but you're better off looking in books.
So, there's your starting point.

I've found some newspaper articles from the 1970's, where people who were pretty obviously in the range of 110-118 when they died, were born into slavery in the late 1850's-early 1860's. I couldn't find stories where they submitted to Guinness or other authorities. But, just as an illustration, one lady in Washington DC died in 1979. She was 118. Her daughter was still alive at 90. I don't know about any documentation.
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Old 07-20-2005, 08:34 PM
kanicbird kanicbird is offline
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I read about a sex slave that was 'free'ed in the last 10 years. Also you have Americans who were captured in other countries and made slaves. I think the answer to your question is sometime in the future.
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Old 07-20-2005, 09:40 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kanicbird
I read about a sex slave that was 'free'ed in the last 10 years. Also you have Americans who were captured in other countries and made slaves. I think the answer to your question is sometime in the future.
The OP is talking about blacks who were legally enslaved within the United States prior to the passage of the 13th Ammendment. It's no secret that sexual slavery still exists in some parts of the world.
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Old 07-21-2005, 12:54 AM
Napier Napier is offline
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Does lhovis73 agree that he is "talking about blacks who were legally enslaved within the United States prior to the passage of the 13th Ammendment"?

I lived in northwest Washington, D.C. in the mid 1960s, and there was a family living at the corner of 46th St. and Chesapeake that kept slaves. The family included an employee of an African embassy - maybe the Ambassador himself, I don't know - and my grandmother explained to me that this made it legal for them to own and keep slaves. There was an upset in the neighborhood when one of the slaves cut herself very badly on the sharp edge of a tin can. Some who saw her thought she was bleeding to death. The family would not seek medical help for her, saying that slaves did not need doctors. One neighbor called the police, and they came, but announced that because of the family's embassy affiliation they could not do anything, and left.
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Old 07-21-2005, 01:30 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Spectre of Pithecanthropus
The youngest Civil War vets were in their eighties by the 1920s.
Quibble here. The youngest Civil War vets lied about their age, and enlisted when they were as young as fourteen, i.e., born as late as 1851. For instance, Confederate soldier David Bailey Freeman.
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Old 07-21-2005, 02:12 AM
lhovis73 lhovis73 is offline
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Indeed, my original question concerned black people who were once legally the property of someone else, and ceased to be the property of someone else (at least according to the law) with the 13th Amendment. I believe the stories of unspeakable exploitation of 20th century blacks from the Sacramento paper, but I don’t think that counts as institutionalized American slavery, strictly speaking, given its “underground” nature. Same goes with white slavery, or for that matter, the condition of some migrant or sweatshop workers, etc. This is not to minimize the suffering that these people are/were subject to, but...doesn’t count as an answer to the question I had in mind (though does count as an answer to the question that I actually asked, I suppose).

As far as Charlie Smith goes, Chronos’ suggestion seems reasonable to me: if it’s possible for a human being to live to age 137, then shouldn’t we expect to find reports of former slaves who outlived Charlie Smith (e.g., were born into slavery very young, say, in 1865, and died at the ripe old age of 137 in 2002!)? Assuming (as we should) that that’s ridiculous, and taking into account what Guinness has to say (the record for human longevity is 122 years, for a woman), then a slave might have made it to 1987. Even if the last slave’s longevity was not record-breaking or -tying, then he or she could have still beat Charlie Smith by living to age 115, dying in 1980, which doesn’t seem at all impossible to me.

Such a person, though, would have no memories of slavery at all...certainly wouldn’t have any stories about slavery to tell that actually happened to him or her. Hence, getting my hands on The Autobiography of Jane Pitman seems like my next step (I had heard of it and knew it had something to do with slavery, but didn’t know who Jane Pitman was or why she’s noteworthy.).
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Old 07-21-2005, 11:59 AM
Schnitte Schnitte is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lhovis73
As far as Charlie Smith goes, Chronos’ suggestion seems reasonable to me: if it’s possible for a human being to live to age 137, then shouldn’t we expect to find reports of former slaves who outlived Charlie Smith (e.g., were born into slavery very young, say, in 1865, and died at the ripe old age of 137 in 2002!)?
Even if it was possible for a human being to live that long, it would still be very, very unlikely. According to Wikipedia, only about one in a thousand centenarians (i.e. people of 100 years of more) reach 110 years. Japan has, again according to Wikipedia, the largest percentage of centenarians: 20,000 in a population of 127 million, or about 1 out of 6350. Combining these numbers, we get one person of 110+ years for over 6 million people. Given that the survival rates drop sharply for every year of additional lifespan, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that (given a lifespan of 137 years is possible) there would be only very, very, very few people to reach that age - maybe only a dozen in the history of mankind, documented as well as undocumented, and only one who was a slave in the U.S.
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Old 07-21-2005, 12:14 PM
lhovis73 lhovis73 is offline
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My reasoning was a bit tangled up in that last post. We shouldn't expect a highly unlikely event to happen all that often...and we shouldn't expect an impossible event to happen at all. And so the question remains, is it highly unlikely, or just plain impossible that Charlie Smith's claim could be true? (My money is on impossible...I guess I'll have to wait another 105 years to find out for sure.)
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Old 07-21-2005, 01:24 PM
Walloon Walloon is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lhovis73
Hence, getting my hands on The Autobiography of Jane Pitman seems like my next step (I had heard of it and knew it had something to do with slavery, but didn’t know who Jane Pitman was or why she’s noteworthy.).
You do know that The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman is a novel? It's not an actual autobiography.
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Old 07-21-2005, 07:08 PM
Xema Xema is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chronos
Does it strike anyone else that Liberia would be a most unlikely place of birth for a man later sold into slavery?
There's also the point that the importation of slaves into the US was made illegal in 1807. Google doesn't seems to produce much in the way of authoritative references, but it appears that the Atlantic slave trade bypassed the US after 1808.
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Old 07-21-2005, 07:49 PM
Spectre of Pithecanthropus Spectre of Pithecanthropus is offline
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Originally Posted by Xema
There's also the point that the importation of slaves into the US was made illegal in 1807. Google doesn't seems to produce much in the way of authoritative references, but it appears that the Atlantic slave trade bypassed the US after 1808.
This good be worth of a thread in its own right, but I'm not sure there's enough information out there to be found. I am aware of the law Xema refers to, but I am positive I saw a picture in a National Geographic, years ago, of a slave who was imported from Africa in 1856 (or maybe 1846). Does anyone know if there were exceptions to that law, for example if the slave in question was being imported via a third country?

In David Herbert Donald's biography of Lincoln he says that, prior to the Civil War, the government considered all manner of more gradual endings of the slave trade, sometimes including compensation to the owners through the issuing of bonds. Amazingly, some of these brainstormings proposed a final extinction of slavery in 1900, or even 1920. Given the unhappy legacy of slavery which we are still coming to terms with even now, it's staggering to think of what the situation would be if we were seventy years behind.
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Old 05-15-2016, 02:46 AM
Davidargall Davidargall is offline
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Charles Smith was found in old census records, and on a marriage license, all of which dated his birth to about 1874, well after the end of slavery. This sort of exaggeration is not at all unusual. One study found that in a limited literate society, people over 60 "age" at the average rate of 14 years a decade.
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Old 05-15-2016, 07:22 AM
Captain Amazing Captain Amazing is online now
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Originally Posted by Spectre of Pithecanthropus View Post
This good be worth of a thread in its own right, but I'm not sure there's enough information out there to be found. I am aware of the law Xema refers to, but I am positive I saw a picture in a National Geographic, years ago, of a slave who was imported from Africa in 1856 (or maybe 1846). Does anyone know if there were exceptions to that law, for example if the slave in question was being imported via a third country?
They think the last slave actually born in Africa to die was Cudjo Lewis, who died in 1935. He was brought over illegally in 1860 on the ship Clotilde. The Clotide story is a pretty interesting one and worth looking up if you get the chance.
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Old 05-15-2016, 07:55 AM
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The only way a victim of that Peculiar Institution could make it to today would be if they were a zombie.
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Old 05-15-2016, 03:03 PM
slash2k slash2k is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Spectre of Pithecanthropus View Post
This good be worth of a thread in its own right, but I'm not sure there's enough information out there to be found. I am aware of the law Xema refers to, but I am positive I saw a picture in a National Geographic, years ago, of a slave who was imported from Africa in 1856 (or maybe 1846). Does anyone know if there were exceptions to that law, for example if the slave in question was being imported via a third country?
Legal importation of slaves into U.S. ports was essentially ended by the 1807 Act; a further act in 1820 made attempting to deliver a "negro or mulatto" into slavery in the U.S. an act of piracy punishable by death.

However, when there's a market, there's somebody willing to supply that market. Smuggling was a profitable enterprise throughout the antebellum period; the Lafitte brother (Jean and Pierre) for example ran large-scale operations in Louisiana, while the only American convicted under the Piracy Act of 1820, Nathaniel Gordon, was executed in 1862, two years after his capture by the Navy's Africa Squadron.

One notable flaw in the federal legislation was the fact that it expressly provided that Africans captured from would-be smugglers were to be sold for the benefit of the state and the informant, which gave an incentive to corrupt officials to stage seizures. By some estimates (notably the historian Ernest Obadele-Starks of Texas A&M), something like three-quarters of a million Africans were smuggled into the U.S. as slaves in the fifty years after the trade was legally abolished.
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Old 05-15-2016, 03:11 PM
nearwildheaven nearwildheaven is offline
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Originally Posted by Davidargall View Post
Charles Smith was found in old census records, and on a marriage license, all of which dated his birth to about 1874, well after the end of slavery. This sort of exaggeration is not at all unusual. One study found that in a limited literate society, people over 60 "age" at the average rate of 14 years a decade.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were reports of Russian peasants, almost all of them men, who were 150 years old or more. It was later revealed that they took the identity of an older relative to avoid having to serve in WW I or other conflicts.

That's a very interesting story about an African embassy family being able to legally own slaves on American soil.
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Old 08-23-2017, 04:54 PM
midshipmanx midshipmanx is offline
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According to Wikipedia, the last known living U.S. Slave was Sylvester Magee. He died in 1971 reportedly at the approximate age of 130 years old (born 1841, died 1971).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvester_Magee
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Old 08-23-2017, 07:02 PM
Jim's Son Jim's Son is offline
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As a side note in the 1930s the Works Progress Administration had a project to collect the reminiscences of some 2,000 former slaves. There is controversy about just how accurate they were or how much many of the interviewers being white affected them. But many are available online.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slav...ive_Collection
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Old 08-24-2017, 06:03 PM
Blakeyrat Blakeyrat is offline
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Originally Posted by midshipmanx View Post
According to Wikipedia, the last known living U.S. Slave was Sylvester Magee. He died in 1971 reportedly at the approximate age of 130 years old (born 1841, died 1971).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvester_Magee
Wikipedia also says the longest-lived man was "only" 116 years old: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_o...ied_oldest_men

It sounds like Sylvester Mcgee definitely convinced a lot of people in the '60s and '70s that he was indeed a Civil War veteran, so. I guess anything's possible. I'm not sure how rigorous Jet's reporting of it was, though.
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Old 08-24-2017, 06:22 PM
Darren Garrison Darren Garrison is offline
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Originally Posted by nearwildheaven View Post
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were reports of Russian peasants, almost all of them men, who were 150 years old or more. It was later revealed that they took the identity of an older relative to avoid having to serve in WW I or other conflicts.
That makes me think of the revelation a few years back that many of Japan's supposed centenarians weren't.
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Old 08-25-2017, 12:38 PM
LSLGuy LSLGuy is offline
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My aged MIL tells the story of her father, born in Italy in ~1880. In those days conscription into the Italian Army was near universal, but birth & death recordkeeping was pretty haphazard.

So in 1890-something the young man's mother prevailed on him, her second son, to lie about his age and take his older brother's place in the army's call-up. The older brother was more special, was going to be the family priest, whatever. But he had to be saved so therefore the second brother had to take his place in the war. Gee thanks Mom.

Successfully finishing his brother's enlistment, including combat in Ethiopia, he was then himself the age to be drafted. Shortly after his discharge he switched back to his own name and reported for a second hitch, this time as himself.

Following that enlistment he'd had quite enough of both Italy's army & Mom. So he emigrated to the US around 1900. By the time of WWI he was an established naturalized American citizen, too old for service, and very much anti-military and anti-war.


Is any of this actually true? Damned if I know, but MIL insists she was told the story many times from an early age by the people directly involved.


The overall punch line being that before the days of centralized reliable recordkeeping, people had a much more fluid idea of who and what they were. Lots of people lived more than one administrative life, whether serially or in parallel. Everybody expected this kind of shenanigans and nobody was surprised by it. Whereas today it borders on impossibly difficult and is therefore almost unthinkable.

Last edited by LSLGuy; 08-25-2017 at 12:43 PM.
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Old 08-26-2017, 05:56 AM
nachtmusick nachtmusick is offline
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How old is Mike Pence?
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Old 08-27-2017, 04:18 PM
Colibri Colibri is online now
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How old is Mike Pence?
[Moderator Note]

I suppose that this is intended as some kind of political jab, although it doesn't make a lot of sense. In any case, it doesn't belong in GQ. No warning issued, but don't do this again.

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