Secrets and Lies

To claim his inheritance, he’d have to reveal his true identity



“My grandfather was no darkie!” said the light-complexioned T. John McKee from his hospital bed as he recuperated from a kidney ailment.

It was spring 1948, and Theophilus John McKee, 67, felt desperate. He’d practiced law on Wall Street for 40 years. He’d sent his two sons to Yale and Trinity College. His best friends were influential people of the day— lawyers, judges. But the men in trenchcoats kept grilling him. “Are you a Negro?” asked one of them.

McKee glanced out the second-floor window of Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Hadn’t he lived an upstanding life? Hadn’t he endured enough pain when, years ago, he made one of the most difficult decisions a man might ever have to make?

Again: “Are you a Negro?”

McKee blurted out, “I will not deny or affirm that.” But he was thinking, How can I answer honestly?

For 45 years McKee had, in fact, been passing as a white man.

On the surface it was easy, with his olive skin tone and the black hair he kept short and straightened with a hot comb. What was harder was the heartache. In 1902, when he was 22 years old, he’d had to tell his closest black friend from Exeter, Roscoe Bruce, son of a U.S. Senator, that he could no longer associate with him. The boys had been best friends for five years, sharing everything, even the humiliation of not being able to live in the same dorms as white kids.

But fate had forced his hand, he felt. In April 1902, McKee—known then as Theophilus John Syphax, or Sie to his friends—lost his wealthy maternal grandfather. He learned he’d inherited almost nothing. In an America just four decades past the Civil War— a country where discrimination was still sanctioned—he knew he’d go no further than elevator operator or train porter, even with his college education. He would be barred from shops, theaters, restaurants.

So he’d decided to live as white.

Now, lying in the hospital in 1948, he knew that if he admitted his real background, he’d lose everything. But ah, the complications! Even at age 67, McKee was afraid of being outed by black relatives who’d been insulted by his life choice. And for all his stature, McKee wasn’t wealthy. Here’s why this mattered: McKee stood a chance of inheriting the remainder of his grandfather’s million-dollar estate.

Mckee’s parents, Douglas Syphax and Abbie McKee Syphax, were from well-known black families that were respected by people of both races.

Douglas had been one of the few black Civil War sergeants, a member of an illustrious Virginia clan who had owned acres of land in Arlington (later donated to the National Cemetery). And Abbie was the daughter of Col. John McKee, a black Civil War hero and one of America’s first black millionaires. He’d made his fortune in real estate and in catering businesses in the 1870s and 1880s.

The colonel had drawn up a will for an estate worth approximately $1 million in 1902. At least half was cash; the rest was in real estate. When he died in April of that year, $200,000-plus was earmarked for various relatives, with Syphax receiving only a pittance. Deciding to pass for white, Syphax had joined Trinity College’s all-white Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He began dating white girls.

He asked his family (who knew of his decision) to stop visiting him. A talented athlete in football, baseball, basketball and track, Syphax, as white, was embraced by his teammates.

After graduation, he entered Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut. But when a minister recognized him as one of the black Syphaxes from Philadelphia, he withdrew. In June 1904, Syphax legally changed his name. As the white John McKee, he applied to Columbia University’s law school, starting in the fall of 1905. For the next 40 years, only occasionally did he meet with one of his four brothers in out-of-the-way spots.

After law school, McKee began working as a commercial attorney on Wall Street. He married Anna Lois Dixon, a white woman from upstate New York. They settled in New York City and had two sons—T. John McKee, Jr., and Douglas Dixon McKee, in 1910 and 1911. McKee joined the Bensonhurst Yacht Club, the Kings County Tennis Club and became men’s league president at the Church of St. Mark.

Then his marriage began falling apart. His wife, knowing nothing of his real background, noticed that he was unusually fastidious about grooming his hair. And after their second son was born, he began visiting a new client up in Harlem, a place where few whites traveled then. (In actuality, McKee was meeting one of his brothers.) When the couple separated, McKee stayed in Manhattan, while Anna and the two boys moved to her hometown.

When McKee’s mother, Abbie Syphax, passed away and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1923— a rare honor for a black then—McKee avoided the funeral. He also avoided the funerals of his brothers, who all predeceased him. He carefully steered clear of his black cousin in Philadelphia who founded the city’s first black hospital, and his prominent relatives in Washington and Virginia who later gave land to the government when President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to expand Arlington Cemetery. McKee diligently clung to the white uppermiddle-class life he’d created.

Eventually McKee remarried, again to a white woman, Aimee Bennett. She, too, knew nothing of his background. By now McKee lived in an apartment building on Manhattan’s East Side. When his sons finished college they returned to upstate New York to be near their mother.

In 1946, McKee’s first cousin, Dr. Henry McKee Minton, passed away. That meant McKee was now the last surviving grandchild of the Syphax-McKee dynasty from Philadelphia.

Then came the shocker. A few months before he was hospitalized, McKee learned that his grandfather’s million-dollar estate had not been fully distributed. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia ran an ad stating that there was a sum of more than $800,000 available (nearly $6.3 million today). That money would go to charity unless there was a surviving grandchild of “the great Negro Civil War hero” Col. John McKee.

For weeks McKee struggled. Should he stay silent and turn his back on his inheritance? Or should he come forward? Doing that, of course, would mean admitting he’d been living a lie.

Finally, McKee decided. Few people knew the emotional burdens he’d been carrying for so long. His first wife had left him. His sons seemed uncomfortable around him. His only remaining connection with them was the money he sent. Now money—and the truth—was dangling over him.

“So are you, in fact, a Negro?” asked the investigator from the Orphans’ Court of Philadelphia as he stood in McKee’s hospital room. The story soon broke. A successful white Wall Street lawyer with prestigious credentials was admitting he was, in fact, the black child of black parents. It was a major society news item in 1948.

McKee’s wife, Aimee, was so devastated she refused to visit him in the hospital. McKee’s sons also stayed away. His law partners and neighbors told the newspapers they had no idea he’d been passing as white.

But the court and the will’s executor, the Philadelphia archbishop, weren’t satisfied with McKee’s simple admission of heritage. They wanted proof. “People will say a lot when they want that much money,” argued one of McKee’s black relatives. From his hospital bed, McKee kept up the fight for his inheritance. He called on the few black relatives he could remember. They refused him.

Finally, one of his mother’s cousins, Camille Johnson of Philadelphia, came forward. She acknowledged that, yes, she remembered him when he was a black student in Philadelphia and at Exeter. McKee also convinced a white Trinity classmate to support his statement that he’d changed his name from Syphax to McKee after leaving Trinity. The court decree in support of the name change was also submitted.

The court appointed a commission, which interviewed witnesses who knew both the “black Syphax” and the “white McKee.” It was John SyphaxMcKee’s longtime white friend Edgar Dibble (a fraternity brother), and his black cousin Camille Johnson, who helped prove kinship. At the hearing, Johnson said that McKee had stopped communicating with her and with another cousin, Henry McKee Minton, while at Trinity. Dibble admitted he and others were uncertain of McKee’s race as a college freshman, but assumed he was white.

As reported on March 25, 1948, in the New York Post, the commission told McKee it “established beyond a shadow of a doubt” that although he had been accepted as a white man for 45 years, he was indeed the Negro grandson of the Negro Civil War veteran Col. John McKee.

Syphax-mckee relatives in Philadelphia and Washington registered their objections and their beliefs that they were more deserving of the fortune. At least a dozen schools and charities asked to share in the estate. McKee hoped it would be only a few months before he’d finally claim his grandfather’s wealth, so he made no attempt to reach out to anyone. Still recovering from his kidney ailment, he quietly celebrated his victory.

Then came the final twist. As the court approached resolution of the $800,000 estate, McKee’s health took a turn for the worse. That summer, McKee learned he would likely not live very long. On August 4, 1948, he died of heart failure.

There was no funeral. McKee was cremated.

For the next several years, black relatives battled with McKee’s white wife and two white sons. Ultimately, the money was awarded to the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Since 1956, the fortune has been used to grant college and vocational scholarships to Philadelphia-area boys of all races who have no living father. In April 2006, the program gave out its scholarship for the 50th year. Its name? The John McKee Scholarship Fund.

It’s not named for the John McKee who lived as a white man for 45 years. Instead, the fund is named in honor of his grandfather, the John McKee who was a black Civil War hero.

“Cam,” he said, “I’m trusting you to take care of the family. You’ll be the man of the house.”