Map & Directions
Time Line of the Legacy and History of Matt Gardner Click on images to enlarge
July 18, 1847
Matt Gardner is born into slavery to Martin Gardner and Rachel (Vasser) Gardner.
May 7, 1862
Matt Gardner, his family, and 74 other slaves of Richard Whitehead Vasser, a merchant of Limestone County, Alabama, are sold to Richard C. Gardner, a merchant of Nashville and a plantation owner in Elkton, Tennessee.
February 22, 1865
Even though Tennessee was exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation that went into effect on January 1, 1863, many Tennessee slaves did gain their freedom during the Civil War, usually by escaping to Union lines. Tennessee abolished slavery in April of 1865, but Matt had become a free man in February. By the age of 21, he had saved $100.00 by taking care of his slave master's son on days he was too drunk to find his way home.
January 18, 1877
Matt posts a $1,250.00 marriage bond to marry Henrietta (Ritta) Jenkins and to their union came eleven children: Atha, Raymond, Susan, Mary, Richard, Ellen, Para Lee, John, Clancy, Velma, and Walker.
Matt Gardner and John Dixon create a four-year note to purchase 106 acres of land from E. W. Copeland.
Note for land is paid off, and Matt Gardner is the sole owner of 106 acres of land in what is known today as Dixontown. It is believed that John Dixon could not meet his obligation on the note and that Matt bought his part out. In any case, because John Dixon was the oldest living black man in the area that made up the community, Matt Gardner named the community Dixontown after John Dixon.
Matt Gardner finances and helps build the first school for blacks in Elkton. He also provided room and board at his home, as well as pay, for the teachers who taught at the school.
Matt Gardner builds his home as a two-story saddle bag-I house designed to display his prosperity and increasing prominence in the community. On the farmstead, Matt erected outbuildings for his farm products and livestock, but most importantly for the local black community. Among the outbuildings were a sorghum gin and a "storehouse" that he operated; Matt sold foodstuffs to neighbors for cash, exchange, and credit.
September 30, 1902
Matt Gardner, also a minister, purchases a 15-acre gravel island in the middle of the Elk River to do baptisms for his congregation and other church congregations in the community. Matt at this time is traveling around Giles County, Tennessee, and Limestone County, Alabama, alternating Sundays preaching the word of God at different churches.
Matt Gardner becomes the pastor of the New Hope Primitive Baptist church of Elkton, Giles County, Tennessee.
January 1, 1917
Matt Gardner pays $3261.50 to purchase another 181.2 acres of land from Charles E. Bull. Now Gardner as a black man in Giles County owns approximately 300 acres of the most prime land located on and around the banks of the Elk River.
The school that Matt financed, and that he and the community built, burns down. School for the next several years alternated between the Primitive Baptist and the Missionary Baptist churches. During this time, the Rosenwald rural school building program was a major effort to improve the quality of public education for African Americans in the early twentieth-century South. African Americans had to contribute cash and in-kind donations of material and labor to match the Rosenwald grant. Matt spearheaded the local community efforts to match finances of the government for a public Rosenwald school in Elkton.
After five years of community fund raising to gain the $500.00 needed for the government match, a new Rosenwald pubic school for blacks opens in Elkton with Matt Gardner as the chairman of the colored school board.
During the 1900 - 1930 period
Matt Gardner was one of the few African Americans in Tennessee to build and sustain a large farming operation on land purchased after the Civil War. Matt was not liked by many whites because of the prime land he owned and his continued prosperity and prominence in the local community. Matt always stood for right, tried to help his neighbors, and supported his community. Even with the formation and existence of the Ku Klux Klan nearby in Pulaski, just 18 miles from his residence, he had only two encounters with the organization. Also during this time, Matt made loans to blacks and a few whites and even held several chattel mortgages for many blacks in the local community so they could purchase or maintain ownership of their land.
July 23, 1940
Matt's wife Henrietta (Jenkins) Gardner, affectionately always known as Ritta, dies. A few excerpts from an obituary read, "Her home was more than a dwelling, it became a shrine. All races went there, that's where Matt and Henrietta stay and everybody knew for what they stood. Some went for information, others for inspiration. Many went to satisfy their appetites. All felt benefited for having gone. Elkton has suffered a great loss, the Negro race the greatest loss." (Pulaski Citizen, August 7, 1940).
November 25, 1942
Matt Gardner receives a certificate of recognition signed by Governor Prentice Cooper. The certificate was from the Tennessee Home Food Supply Program for meritorious achievement. The certificate was awarded "for having grown 75% or more of all the food necessary for the family and livestock and in leadership for better living in the community."
June 5, 1943
Reverend Matt Gardner passes. His obituary reads, "After a long, worthy, worthwhile life, respected and honored by all of us, white and Negro, he died last week at Elkton at the advanced age of 95… . Uncle Matt was an exceptional person. Although born when Negro education was confined solely to the primary fundamentals, he by his reading and contacts developed into a man well versed in scripture and able to hold his own in any scriptural debate or argument. He was also a splendid farmer and although rearing a large family, contrived to accumulate property enough to sustain him to his earthly journey's end…. His influence upon his race was noticeable and he commanded the respect of all the hundreds who knew him while here. No one could be more missed from the walks of life in our section than he, for so many years a familiar figure, with his happy smile and cheerful attitude, his rugged honesty and devotion to his numerous friends of both races. The body was withheld from burial for five days, pending the arrival of relatives and friends from distant localities. There were more than 1000 people attending the last rites, probably the largest number ever assembled for such an occasion in the section. The people of his race for miles around put in extra work for those with cars in order that their entire families were able to attend. So Uncle Matt was justly honored in death as he had been all throughout his life." (Pulaski Recorder, June 16, 1943)