The first Black mayor of Athens, Tennessee — a former City Council member whose tenure spanned more than three decades — has died in his hometown, where he was first elected to office in 1971.
Burkett Levon Witt was 97.
Witt's niece, Frances Witt-McMahan, has served on the Athens City Council since being elected in 2020 and carries her uncle's words with her as she follows his footsteps.
"Losing him is the end of an era not only for my family, but the whole community," Witt-McMahan said Monday in an email. "Burkett was my hero. I watched him throughout my life, deciding early that I wanted to be half as much to my family and community. His example led me to run for City Council, never expecting to fill his shoes, but to carry on the Witt name in service to Athens and beyond. He fully supported my decision and was always there to share his wisdom with me. One thing he said repeatedly — 'Niece, do right and right will always come back to you.' I've tried to do just that."
Burkett died Friday.
Current Mayor Steven Sherlin called Witt a "friend to all."
"I have known Burkett Witt my entire life. He was a fine person," Sherlin said Monday in an email. "He was a friend to all and a mentor to many. Any time his name is mentioned, one immediately brings to mind food. His barbecue was the best to be found. He worked in the food industry for decades at Tennessee Wesleyan University and owned his own restaurant. His service to the city was invaluable."
"Burkett Witt will truly be missed by the people of Athens," Sherlin said.
The former Athens leader was "an amazing man," Athens Vice Mayor Larry Eaton said
"The passing of Mayor Burkett Witt is a sad time for Athens, Tennessee," Eaton said in an email. "Mayor Witt was always kind and courteous to everyone that came across him. There are three men that I have modeled my life from and that is my dad, Director Larry Wallace and Mayor Burkett Witt. Those three men were true role models for all. Mayor Witt was always emailing and never talked negatively towards anything or anyone,"
Wallace is a former director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Witt was an icon in the community and will be missed, Eaton said.
When he was first elected to a four-year term on the City Council in July 1971 as Athens voters ousted three incumbents, Witt became the city's first Black council member, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives. At the time, Witt was described as the owner of a local catering service, but his legacy would reach far beyond that.
In 1983 at the age of 57, Witt became the first Black mayor of Athens and was one of the first Black mayors ever in Tennessee if not the first, archives show. Witt, then a 12-year veteran of the council, was elected 3-1 by his fellow council members with then-Mayor William Brakebill abstaining because he was a candidate.
After he was elected to the post and took his place at the mayor's seat, Witt told those attending he would continue projects underway "to make Athens grow in the right directions," according to a July 6, 1983, article in The Chattanooga Times.
"We will work together as we have in the past," Witt said at the time.
The article notes that while there was no legal requirement for it, the City Council often gave the top vote-getter in city elections the position of mayor. In 1983, the mayor's post went to Witt, but while he was the top vote-getter in three out of four prior elections, he was not elected mayor by fellow council members, Witt noted at the time.
Witt's four-year stint in the mayor's seat would be his last as others netted the council's majority vote in later terms, according to archives, but he kept a seat on the council for 33 years.
When Witt sat in his last City Council meeting in 2004, he challenged the council to review the way it chooses its mayor.
Witt's influence on his community reached beyond his elected service.
In 2014, Tennessee Wesleyan University — then Tennessee Wesleyan College — awarded Witt an honorary doctorate of public services during spring graduation ceremonies, archives show.
The school also announced plans to name a room in Witt's honor in the school's new Campus Center, which began construction in 2016.
"This honorary doctorate is all about recognizing Burkett's impact in the lives of hundreds of Tennessee Wesleyan alumni, as well as the citizens of Athens, McMinn County and the state of Tennessee," then-vice president for advancement at the school, Randy Nelson, said at the 2004 commencement.
Witt started his relationship with Tennessee Wesleyan students in 1949 when he ran "Bo and Pete's Southern Soda Shop," a favorite college hangout, Nelson said at the time. In 1956, Witt began his 16-year career on the school's campus, serving students.
According to his obituary at M.D. Dotson & Sons Funeral Home in Athens, Witt was the youngest of 10 children to Henry Witt and Mary Bell Cates Witt, of Athens, and was a loving father, grandfather, great-grandfather and uncle. He was married to Mildred Scott Witt for 55 years before her death in 2000.
Witt's family will receive friends from 4-7 p.m. Friday at the Light of Faith Ministries International followed by a celebration of life service at McMinn County High School's gymnasium at 5 p.m. Saturday.