A garrisonlike naval academy would grace the bank of the Delaware River in Bristol. A bronze replica of the colonel on horseback would survey the boys who traversed the integrated campus. Embossed on their brass buttons would be the name of McKee, said to be the richest African American at his death in 1902.
History did not quite unfold according to McKee’s plan.
Today, McKee remains an obscure giant of Philadelphia history, a businessman whose achievements in life have been at least matched by his contribution in death.
He is responsible for considerably more than 1,000 scholarships given to fatherless boys during the last 57 years, according to the administrator of a trust he endowed. In the last 10 years alone, the McKee Scholarships have funded almost $4 million for the postsecondary education of 239 young men.
And yet for 89 years, he lay in an unmarked grave; not the brick-and-marble family vault he ordered in his will, not even in his original plot.
McKee wrote his will almost two years before his death, drafting exactly how he wanted to be remembered. But even with a fortune estimated at $2 million, in death he quickly lost control of events.
Born in Alexandria, Va., McKee made his way at 21 to Philadelphia in the early 1840s.
He initially found work in a livery stable and then a restaurant at Eighth and Market Streets owned by James Prosser, a well-known African American caterer. McKee married Prosser’s daughter Emeline, and ran the restaurant until 1866, before he started buying property throughout Philadelphia.
At his death, his holdings were an empire: more than 300 rental houses in the city, as well as his own house at 1030 Lombard St., an estate in Bristol Township, Bucks County, and several hundred thousand acres throughout West Virginia, Georgia, and Kentucky. Continue reading “Colonel John McKee, Unsung Hero of Fatherless Boys in Need Of Scholarships, Finally Gets Tombstone”