Former slave Gardner rose to prominence after the war as a minister, farmer and philanthropist. His home is a monument to the transition from slavery to independence.
Matt Gardner was born into slavery on a plantation in North Carolina circa 1848. In May 1862, the Gardner family was sold to a plantation in Elkton, Tennessee. His parents, Martin and Rachel Gardner, worked as house servants and had six children.
The Gardners’ position within the slave hierarchy was that of privileged slaves, and the family had great prominence in Elkton’s African American society after the war.
During Reconstruction, these families typically assumed leadership roles, becoming the teachers, preachers, lawyers, doctors, and politicians in African American communities.
By the end of the war, Matt Gardner had acquired his freedom and accumulated roughly $100. In the postwar years, he emerged as a prominent minister and farmer and, at the age of 22, he married Henrietta Brown. During the 1880s, Gardner subsidized the construction of an African American school.
By 1896, Gardner owned 106 acres of land and built a two-story home, the house that stands today. The house reflected the family’s social prominence and wealth and quickly became the center of Elkton’s African American community. Most of the outbuildings served livestock and agricultural needs, but Gardner also constructed a storehouse where he sold items to neighbors and friends for exchange, cash, or credit. In the early 1900s, Gardner purchased a small island in the Elk River for baptisms and became the pastor of the New Hope Primitive Baptist Church in Elkton. In 1917, he expanded his farm with a 182-acre purchase to become one of the leading black landowners in Giles County.
During the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, he spearheaded a ‘fundraising effort to bring a Rosenwald School to the area after the school he funded in the 1880s burned down. Gardner dedicated his life to helping his community, lending a hand to all in need until his death in 1943 at the age of 95.
The Matt Gardner Homestead stands as a monument to the transition from slavery to freedom and to the perseverance of postwar African American communities. It is open for visitors the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of each month with a small admission fee.