Upland Chronicles: McMahans made lasting impact on Sevier County

Mar. 13, 2013 @ 11:50 AM

Sometime in the mid-1850s, James Isaac McMahan, who owned a big farm near Sevierville, traveled to Charleston, S.C., for the purpose of purchasing slaves to bring back home to work on his farm and the brickyard which he owned.

James Isaac McMahan was a son of James Wellington McMahan, who received a large land grant near the forks of the Little Pigeon River for his service in the Revolutionary War, of which he donated 25 for the town of Sevierville.

The slaves had been brought to Charleston from Africa on a slave ship. After McMahan bought the slaves he loaded them on a wagon for the long trip back to Sevierville. Before leaving, McMahan returned to the dock where he discovered a little black boy who appeared to be about four.

Since the boy seemed lost and confused, McMahan decided to inquire about the youngster. The auctioneer informed him that all the slaves had already been sold, including the boy’s mother and sister. McMahan asked the auctioneer if he could buy the boy thinking he would make a good playmate for his son, who was about the same age.

The auctioneer replied, “You can have him for nothing, he’s not worth anything … he’s too young to work.” McMahan took the boy home and gave him the name DeWitt, later shortened to simply Witt.

Growing up together, Witt and young Pleasant Henry McMahan played together, slept in the same room and ate at the same table. Each boy received the same clothes, shoes and gifts. They were tutored by the same teacher and taught the trade of brick masonry.

When the Civil War ended Witt was free. He chose as his full name Paris DeWitt McMahan, with the surname McMahan coming from the only family he had ever known. He began working for Isaac Dockery, a free black man who operated a brick kiln in Sevierville. On Feb. 20, 1873 Witt married Louisa, a daughter of Isaac Dockery.

Six weeks earlier, on Jan. 2, 1873, Louisa’s older sister Adeline had married Thomas McMahan. Many people assumed that Witt and Tom were related, possibly brothers, but there is no proof that they are blood relatives.

Thomas McMahan, always known as Tom, grew up as a slave owned by Archibald McMahan of Pearl Valley. Shortly before Archibald McMahan died in 1853, he made out his will in which he stated, “I give and bequeath to my son Redmond one slave named Thomas.” Tom was one of 16 slaves Archibald McMahan divided among his 13 surviving children.

Taking the surname of his former owner, Tom McMahan moved to Sevierville and began working for Isaac Dockery when he gained his freedom at the end of the Civil War. Although his birth date was never recorded, Tom’s age is listed as 32 in the 1880 U.S. Census records.

Together with the sons and other sons-in-law, Tom McMahan and Witt McMahan became proficient in the skill of brick masonry and the family built an extraordinary reputation in the business. As the demand grew, Witt McMahan established Riverside Steam Brick Co.

As their families grew, most of Witt and Tom’s sons joined the business. Fred S. McMahan, a son of Witt and Louisa McMahan attended Knoxville College and later received his master’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois. When he returned to Sevierville, Fred and two of his brothers James and Newt formed J.F. and N. Construction Co.

Their cousin Joe Leak McMahan was the foreman of J. F. and N. Construction Co. The three brothers pooled their resources for Joe to attend college to benefit the company.

Other descendants of Isaac Dockery such as the Burden Brothers were also involved in the brick manufacturing and construction business and maintained a good reputation as well.

Many commercial buildings in Sevier County and throughout East Tennessee were built by J.F. and N. Construction Co. during the early to mid decades of the 20th century. Some of the remaining structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Built as Union Church for African-American congregations of all religious beliefs, the family of Isaac Dockery and his descendants were instrumental in the establishment of New Salem Baptist Church.

Utilizing a grant obtained from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, James, Newt and Fred McMahan donated the land and built Pleasant View Elementary School, the only such school constructed with a brick exterior.

While the family operated a successful business they never failed to take care of their own. Ode McMahan, son of Tom and Adeline, died in 1914, leaving four sons, the oldest of who was only 9. Four years later Ode’s wife Mollie died during the flu epidemic. Ode and Millie’s four orphaned sons were taken in and raised by their uncles and cousin.

Born slaves, Witt McMahan and Tom McMahan defied the odds and became successful and respected businessmen in Sevier County. Their grandchildren became professionals in the areas of law, pharmacy, education and government.

Through hard work and determination the little boy who was deemed worthless and left alone on the dock in Charleston, and a slave who was willed from one generation to the next as mere property, left a proud legacy in Sevier County.

— Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.