Reverend Matt Gardner's Homestead
The Matt Gardner Homestead consists of an 1890s farmhouse and a scattering of outbuildings located on a plot of land originally purchased by the Reverend Matt Gardner, an African American man who was born into slavery and died as a free man in the twentieth century, and which is still held in the Gardner family. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a Tennessee Century Farm, and is especially significant for its history of African American land ownership.
Born around July 18, 1848 on a North Carolina plantation, Matt Gardner was the son of Rachel and Martin Gardner. After his father's passing, Matt Gardner, his mother, and siblings were sold to a family in Elkton, Tennessee in Giles County.
In January 1877, Matt married Henrietta (nee Jenkins) Gardner, who was always known to her friends as Ritta. Matt and Henrietta would eventually have eleven children, named Atha, Raymond, Susan, Mary, Richard, Ellen, Para Lee, John, Clancy, Velma, and Walker.
Starting in the Reconstruction years, Matt Gardner purchased a total of around 500 acres of land in the same county he was once enslaved, and turned his land into a focal point for the rising African American community. On this land, around 1896 -- the same year the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson "Separate But Equal" case was tried -- Matt Gardner built his new two-story frame house. He also built many other outbuildings, including a storehouse that sold goods to fellow members of his community.
Matt Gardner was not only wise when it came to agriculture and the growth of his business, but was a spearhead for the development of a flourishing community built after emancipation. Also a minister, Reverend Matt became the pastor of Elkton's New Hope Primitive Baptist Church in 1911. Religion and education played large roles in Gardner's life. Gardner proceeded with local efforts to acquire a public school for African Americans in Elkton while also providing room and board on his property for the school's teacher. Gardner continued his local efforts by raising funds to contribute to the Rosenwald school that was eventually built near his property. From these efforts, the establishment of an African American community known as Dixontown was a success, only adding to the significant role Matt Gardner and his property played.
Despite the founding of the white-supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan in nearby Pulaski, a mere 18 miles from the homestead, Matt Gardner maintained a prominent role of leadership in his community, and was known to lend a neighborly hand (and financial resources) to local Black families as well as white families.
The historic Matt Gardner Homestead signifies the rise of the rural commercial elite among African American property owners throughout Reconstruction, as well as the fortitude and strength shown by African Americans throughout the era of Jim Crow.
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