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Family Reunion Forum

Descendants of former slave return to roots

By Deangelo McDaniel
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2469

COURTLAND In a log cabin near Courtland in 1851, a slave on the estate of William McMahon gave birth to a boy.

She named him Robert, probably after her father or her husband's grandfather. Then, she handed Robert over to the executors of William McMahon's estate because he was another piece of property the courts had to identify. The first written record of Robert's birth lists him as "one of the Negroes" who was property just like a saddle, horse or gold watch.

But after the Civil War, Robert took the last name of his previous owners, suggesting that he was fond of them.

He stayed in Courtland, married former slave Clara Holmes and fathered 10 children.

More than 150 Robert McMahon descendants returned to Courtland recently as part of the family's annual reunion. They walked on the land McMahon slaves worked and toured the historic McMahon House that slaves built.

"This is awesome," said Bill McMahon of Marietta, Ga. "We have come home."

The trip to Courtland was on the second day of a four-day reunion that started in Atlanta.

One of the highlights of the visit, family members said, was visiting the historic home their slave ancestors constructed. Ben and Barbara Wilson purchased the home from the state in 1987 for $3,200 and spent more than $150,000 restoring it.

Most of the furnishing inside the two-story home the McMahon family acquired in 1838, reflect how the home would have looked before emancipation.

"I'm sure my ancestors didn't live in the house, but they built it and lived on the property," Bill said, adding that he had an eerie feeling while on the historic property.

Bill McMahon of Georgia said he had an eerie feeling while touring the historic McMahon House in Courtland. His slave ancestors constructed the home.
DAILY Photo by Deangelo McDaniel
Bill McMahon of Georgia said he had an eerie feeling while touring the historic McMahon House in Courtland. His slave ancestors constructed the home.
"There was a sense of excitement," he added. "Just think, my ancestors built this. I feel a connection. Courtland will always be a place we can call home."

As he talked with North Courtland Mayor Ronald Jones and longtime Courtland resident Eliza Diggs, Walter Leo McMahon of Las Vegas requested a tour of the historic Courtland square.

He didn't realize that some of the slave auction blocks remained on Courtland's square.

"I've got to go see one," he told Jones.

Other family members joined him on the northeast corner of the square.

Walter jumped up on the block and turned around like a slave would have. A white man passing through offered $35 for him.

"I'll take it," Walter called.

"Just think, some of my family members were probably on this block," Walter said.

"You're right," Johnetta Young of Maryland responded. "This is our history. We need our family members to come out here and see this."

Bill, who had already seen the auction blocks, is Robert McMahon's great-grandson and one of the organizers of the family reunion. He has been compiling information about the family for almost 20 years and this was his sixth trip to Lawrence County. A lot of what he knows about the family he found in a telephone book when his grandfather died in 1968.

His grandfather left Courtland for Pittsburgh in the 1920s and never moved back to the South.

"He had written names in the telephone book and it helped a lot," Bill said.

This reunion trip to Courtland was the first for the majority of the McMahon clan. They came by vanloads to see Robert's birthplace.

Oldest descendant

Mattie Cathey of Jackson, Miss., was the oldest descendant to visit. She is 84 and Robert's great-granddaughter.

Three-week-old Jayden Gridrion of Fresno, Calif., was the youngest. She is Robert's great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter.

The story of the family that brought McMahon slaves to Lawrence County dates to 1828 when John J. McMahon moved to Courtland in 1828 to set up a business with Andrew Bierne.

About 10 years later, John's elderly father, William McMahon, moved from Harrisonburg, Va., to a plantation north of Courtland. William brought with him the slaves who were Robert's parents.

Bill, who spent six years traveling to Courtland to complete the family tree, has found no definitive proof of Robert's parents.

But, an 1848 property assessment record in the Lawrence County Archives suggests that Robert's father was Jack.

The document, which is an itemized list of property in William McMahon's estate, has four male slaves who would have been old enough to father children when Robert was born.

One of them is Jack, a slave between 40 and 50 years old. Robert and Clara McMahon named their first child Jack when he was born March 4, 1873, in Courtland.

"I had suspected that Robert's father was Jack, but I didn't have any way of proving that," Bill said by telephone after the reunion.

Elaine McMahon of Cincinnati is Robert's great-granddaughter and Jack's granddaughter. The reunion trip was her first to Courtland.

"Jack was Robert's first child," she said. "He was 92 when he died in 1965 in Ohio. I remember him, but we have five of Robert's children that we don't know a lot about."

Joseph McMahon, the youngest child of Robert and Clara, told most of what the family knows about Robert. Joseph was born in 1894 in Courtland and died in 1982 in New York.

"I grew up next door to Joseph, and he told me a lot," Bill said.

During his visits to Courtland, Bill would ask people he didn't know if they knew about the McMahon descendants. He said he has talked with some of the white McMahon descendants, but has yet to garner any information about the former slaves.

"This is probably going to be a lifetime project," he said.

He's right, in part, because there are things about Robert that remain a mystery. After his last child with Clara, for example, Robert left his wife and moved to Arkansas. He died in Little Rock, Ark., and Clara remarried.

"I've heard all sorts of stories (about why he left his family in Courtland), but I'm not sure," Bill said. "I don't know if he started another family in Arkansas or what he did."

Family members have told Bill that Robert died "sometime in the late 1930s." Two years from now, the McMahons will gather in Memphis for their annual reunion. This will put Bill close enough to Arkansas that he may learn more about Robert.

Regardless of where the next search takes him, his family's legacy is cemented in Lawrence County, primarily because of the historic McMahon House in Courtland.

With Johnetta Young of Maryland watching, Walter McMahon of Las Vegas stands on one of the slave auction blocks in Courtland.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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