The Tennessean 2014

matt_gardnerPULASKI, Tenn. – Racists scared Matt Gardner off his front porch in Giles County more than 100 years ago.

As the locals tell it, warning shots fired at the prominent black farmer’s home forced him to keep to the backyard for the last several decades of his life.

The Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, was free to grow up around him.

So while Gardner’s legacy faded — builder of schools for black children, minister to three churches and a prolific farmer of 300 acres until he died in 1943 — the rise of the Klan became synonymous with the south central Tennessee county and especially with the city of Pulaski a few miles north of his homestead.

Now people in the community want to take Gardner’s porch back — and a lot of other things, too. In doing so, they hope to reclaim the history of a place that runs much deeper than the hate-mongering terrorists whose robe-wearing, cross-burning activities were born here.

A place that was home to real heroes.

The tools of reclamation will be education, tours that emphasize other aspects of the past, and art — especially art. A life-size painting of Gardner and his wife — think of a cardboard cutout but rendered with a painter’s touch — awaits the right moment to stand in his place.

A likeness of Matthew Gardner and his wife, Henrietta,
rests in the Giles County tourism office Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, in Pulaski, Tenn.
(Photo by: George Walker IV / The Tennessean)

The Gardner artwork is one piece of a broad batch of plans for reshaping the community’s identity. Years in the making, a handful of projects now reach a critical moment together, addressing not just the Klan but also local connections to the Trail of Tears and the Underground Railroad.

“We had to do something about this history that burdens us,” said Ted Brown, president of Martin Methodist College in downtown Pulaski. “We tried a dozen other things and circled around it so many different ways. In some respects, maybe the arts were the most compelling in the end.”

There’s a lot in motion, but paintings by college art professor Bernice Davidson figure to be prominent in the effort.

Her Heroes Project portrays the stories of Gardner and other unsung local figures through murals painted at civic and historic sites, inside the city’s small Trail of Tears museum, at local businesses and on the college campus.

“It’s coming together,” Davidson said. “Art helps.

“I want this to be a place where we collect the heroes,” says Bernice Davidson,
an art professor at Martin Methodist College. (Photo by: George Walker IV / The Tennessean)

“We will change it from what everybody thinks of Pulaski.” Davidson is working on her ninth mural as part of her Heroes Project.”

“It’s like shining a light or getting handed a microphone.”

Yet some projects lack money, volunteers or both. And it remains to be seen whether the arts can make a difference with such an entrenched reputation.

The Klan legacy

Brown has a way of measuring the Klan’s legacy.

“Simply Google ‘Pulaski, Tennessee,’ ” he said.

For years, references to the Klan’s founding have appeared among the top results.

“The question is: Can we as a community change that identity? Can we create enough positive elements related to Pulaski?” Brown said. “The idea that we would uplift our heroes is a way, in a sense, to look at the flip side of the issue.”

As it happens, Brown knows how it feels to see Pulaski in a new way.

As he mulled the possibility of leading Martin Methodist in 1998, a friend asked whether he really wanted to go headlong into the “backyard of racism.”

Foreboding as that sounded, he went anyway. That’s when he began to realize that the story of this place was a lot more complicated than its role as the birthplace and longtime headquarters of the KKK.

He said locals understand the goods and bads of their history while outsiders tend to make simple assumptions — mostly about the bad.

The Heroes Project tries to fill in the bigger picture.

Davidson is working on her ninth mural. She has depicted a popular preacher, a patron of the arts, the founder of the college and a scene from the Underground Railroad, the hidden network that led escaped slaves to safety and freedom.

“I want this to be the place where we collect the heroes,” Davidson said. “We will change it from what everybody thinks of Pulaski.”

Together the paintings create a small circuit around Pulaski, taking cues from other historical trails that crisscross the area. Other themed routes guide tourists through Civil War history, Appalachian quilts and the Trail of Tears.

Alone, some of the attractions might not draw visitors — nor would a single painting by Davidson. But together they have more pull.

So while there has not been a central organizer behind the various art and history projects, there is strength in numbers. And Davidson’s theme, of raising up local heroes, can run through all the other projects.

The Trail of Tears interpretive center, for example, had been in the works for years. The center narrates the forced relocation of Native Americans out of the Southeast, and how two routes crossed in Giles County.

From that broad account, Davidson added her touch by creating a life-size painting of Nancy Ward, a Cherokee woman who championed peace. Without ignoring the historical scar left by the trail, the painting takes up Davidson’s clever mission of making sure the heroes are highlighted.

At the same time, the center exposes just how fledgling the effort remains.

It took more than 10 years to finally open the museum last summer inside a former Catholic church that was relocated to a city park in 2001.

The center has struggled to find enough volunteers to stay open even three days a week. Its backers await the printing of a new brochure and highway signage to tout the museum to travelers, who rarely stop in.

Where the story comes together

Nowhere does Giles County harbor as much potential — and frustration — as at Matt Gardner’s homestead, a few miles north of the Alabama border.

It’s where many local stories intersect, but also where disrepair has jeopardized a treasured piece of the past.

“If you stand still long enough, you’re going to hear the Matt Gardner story. It’s a story that encompasses everybody in Giles County and they don’t realize it,” said Diana Steelman, a volunteer keeper of the property.

For 12 years, Steelman has championed the legacy while struggling to keep the white, two-story home open to schoolchildren and tourists. For a couple of years, she welcomed visitors two Saturdays per month.

But it has been closed more than a year now. Steelman cut off the electricity and keeps the most precious artifacts locked up elsewhere. What has been saved has a time capsule quality — original household goods from the late 1800s through the 1940s.

Some floors need to be stabilized. And it could take $30,000 to fix the roof.

Recently, members of a local church took an interest in the property. Their attention was drawn to the Elk River, which runs through it. They use it for creek baptisms, just as Gardner did almost a century before. It was from a sand bar that Gardner owned that ministers — white and black — baptized believers as witnesses watched from a bridge above.

The river was a place shared peacefully between the races, Steelman said.

Art professor Bernice Davidson is using her Heroes Project to tell the story of Pulaski’s unsung local figures.
(Photo by: George Walker IV / The Tennessean)

One of Davidson’s murals, a work not yet finished, shows a baptism scene. Eventually, she hopes to place it near the water’s edge. When that happens it will not be far from her painting of the Gardners, Matt and Henrietta, seated in their rocking chairs.

“We want to put Matt back on the front porch where he belongs,” Steelman said.

Until then, the Gardners sit in a corner of the Giles County tourism office on Pulaski’s downtown square. They seem a little lost.

To Steelman, putting them back on the porch will evoke a different time — another small step in the effort to reclaim Giles County’s past.

“If you don’t know where you’ve come from,” she said, “how are you going to get somewhere else?”

Signs of change

A series of projects in Pulaski and surrounding Giles County are part of an effort to try to preserve and narrate the region’s complicated history of race relations.

Trail of Tears interpretive center

The centerpiece of a small city park, the Trail of Tears center includes informational panels, Creek and Cherokee flags and a National Park Service documentary about the forced relocation of Native Americans. Two routes crossed in Giles County. In the park surrounding the stone building, mosaic benches depict scenes from the trail and memorialize the names of those who came through Giles County.

Matt Gardner Homestead Museum

The Matt Gardner homestead at 110 Dixon Town Road in Elkton preserves the legacy of a freed slave who became a prominent farmer of 300 acres, as well as the philanthropist behind early schools for black children. Closed and awaiting repairs, the historic home will feature two murals depicting Gardner.

Heroes Project

The Heroes Project places murals by Martin Methodist College art professor Bernice Davidson into important civic and historic sites in Giles County. A second, interactive phase asks schoolchildren, college students, residents and visitors to write about the heroes in their own lives. Those submissions will be placed into a time capsule.

Martin Methodist College

This small college in downtown Pulaski has been steadily working on a “Compassion Park” on its east campus, featuring an informative walking trail and pieces of 9/11 steel salvaged from the World Trade Center.

“The Boycott”

The story of Pulaski’s widespread boycott of a Ku Klux Klan reunion in 1989 will be captured in a dramatic play being written by a Martin Methodist professor.

Underground Railroad research

As research continues into possible Giles County connections to the Underground Railroad, traveled by slaves seeking freedom, the college will present a special collection of railroad-related artwork on loan from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

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