The Rev. Dr. James H. Magee (1839-1912) is one of the most interesting, yet obscure, characters in Springfield history. Were it not for a semiautobiographical book he published in 1873 while serving as pastor of the Union Baptist Church of Cincinnati, scant little indeed would be known about this high-minded, eloquent African-American social progressive and champion of human rights.
Until last week, no photograph of him was known to exist, but today we reproduce his image here with the permission of Spurgeon’s College (which was then called Pastors College) of London, England, where Magee studied during the 1867-68 school year. A concomitant result of our communication: Faculty member Dr. Ian Randall, who is writing a history of the school, learned of Magee’s book The Night of Affliction and Morning of Recovery, wherein may be found Magee’s first-person observations of the college’s founder, the famed English evangelist Charles Haddon Spurgeon, as well as descriptions of London and campus life.
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, Wis., 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 here 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 the 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 America.” 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.”
“[Lincoln’s] name will be ever dear to generations yet unborn,” he wrote. “We, who are here in Canada, the home of the free, feel the effects of the fall of the hero of liberty, and are here assembled to-day to show our respect for the one who was foremost in securing to us the chart of liberty.”
Magee’s desire to study under Spurgeon was so great that although he had been denied admission (because of the number of students and waiting applicants), he nevertheless sailed on May 18, 1867, from Montreal, aboard the “noble steamer Hibernian,” to personally implore the rector for a place of study. He succeeded and, a year later, returned to Canada with a private library given to him by Spurgeon himself. Magee’s descriptive account of the voyage and his time spent in London, written in high Victorian prose, is a joy to read.
Scholar and author Roger D. Bridges, who wrote an article about Magee, “Triumph over Adversity” (Illinois History Teacher 2003, volume 10, issue 1), says that it is no mystery that Magee refers to Canada as “the home of the free.”
Bridges says, “Magee is a relative unknown to most, if not all, Illinoisans, but he is an important example of the efforts of African-Americans to enter the mainstream of Illinois and American life while withstanding its rebuffs without bitterness. The way his accomplishments were belittled by the press of the day, and the way his contributions were marginalized, is criminal. However, 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.”
Here in Springfield, Magee formed the Illinois State Colored Historical Society, held the presidency of the Ambidexter Institute, which was a manual-training school (located in a building that still stands at 12th and Cass Streets), 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. Drawing on his own experiences, and presaging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he wrote, “The colored man’s weapon in the North is the big stick at the ballot box. Use it like men who have the right to use it, in defense of the sacred Temple of Liberty. A man who is good enough to fight for his country — that man’s children, though black, are good enough to go to the common schools of his country.” He further urged the African-American community to support the Forum, Springfield’s “colored” newspaper.
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. When, on May 29, 1912, he was informed of Rose’s sudden death, he (according to the Illinois State Journal) “sat down, and, catching his side as if in pain, said: ‘I don’t see how I am going to get over this. He was my good friend . . .’ The aged messenger reiterated his belief that he could never survive the shock of his friend’s death.”
Magee, “the leader of the colored people of this city,” according to the Illinois State Register, died later that night at his home at 206 N. 14th St.
Thanks to Judy Powles, librarian of Spurgeon’s College. Cheryl Pence, Mary Michals, and Jim Helm of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library assist Bob Cavanagh in researching this column. Contact Cavanagh at firstname.lastname@example.org.