Exclusive: Slave-Owner Past of Gardenhire Family Raises Questions in Key Tenn. State Senate Race

Republican State Senator Todd Gardenhire, who has come under fire for his role in getting a local NPR fired. (The Tennessean)

By Mike Elk

New historical documents unearthed by Payday Report show that embattled Republican state Senator Todd Gardenhire’s ancestors were involved in the slave trade, raising troubling questions about the family’s slave trading both before and after the Civil War. The new revelations have provoked outrage from some in the African-American community, who say that, given Gardenhire’s family’s past, that he owes it to African Americans to not engage in dog-whistle racial politics.  

Gardenhire is running against self-proclaimed Berniecrat and Black Lives Matter supporter Khristy Wilkinson, who has campaigned heavily in the African-American community, which makes up approximately 25 percent of the district’s 190,000 voters. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Tennessee Democratic Party says that their internal polling shows the race as being within the margin of error.

The state Senate race in Chattanooga is one of the most closely watched in Tennessee. Gardenhire is currently one of two votes that Republican Governor Bill Haslam needs to flip in the state Senate Committee on Labor and Commerce to enact his plan to expand Medicaid to an estimated 280,000 Tennesseans. Already, the Iowa-based independent expenditure group Heartland Accountability Group has spent $46,000 in independent expenditures criticizing Gardenhire’s failure to support Medicaid expansion.

Meanwhile, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that “one Republican strategist projects that Gardenhire, the Senate Republican Caucus and the Tennessee Republican Party will have spent $110,000 on TV alone before all is said and done.” Even Haslam, the moderate Republican governor who has criticized Gardenhire in the past for blocking Medicaid expansion, has recorded radio ads asking Chattanooga-area voters to reelect Gardenhire.

The new revelation of Gardenhire family’s slave-owning past could help turn out Wilkinson’s base of support in the African-American community on election day.

Race has already played a key role in the election. Earlier this year, Gardenhire sponsored a bill to strip the University of Tennessee’s funding for its Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

Then last week, in what many African Americans say is a dog whistle tactic, Gardenhire sent a mailer to tens of thousands of Chattanooga-area voters, in which he alleged that Michigan-native Wilkinson “has Detroit values and wants to bring its failures here.” Gardenhire then extolled that only he has “proven that he shares our Tennessee values.”

“Black voters are tired of hearing racially-coded messages,” says Kevin Muhammad, a spokesperson for the Hamilton County Black Caucus, a non-partisan civil rights organization.

Now, the caucus is calling on Gardenhire to answer questions about his own family’s history in trading slaves.

“By making race and family heritage a part of the campaign, Senator Gardenhire owes the people of District 10 a full explanation of his family’s slave-trading past,” says Muhammad.

According to historical records unearthed by Payday Report, the Gardenhire’s family wealth derives directly from slave holding. According to the book “History of Tennessee from The Earliest Time to the Present Vol. 4”, published in 1887 by the Godspeed Publishing Company, one of Todd Gardenhire’s ancestors, George Washington Gardenhire, was a slave trader, who owned several plantations in the Chattanooga area.

His son, W.C. Gardenhire, was also a slave trader, who served as a colonel for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In 1871, after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, W.C. Gardenhire traveled to Fiji, where he captured three native Fijians and later sold them to P.T. Barnum, according to the book “Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle” by University of London researcher Roslyn Poignant.

Indeed, Gardenhire recently said in an interview with NPR affiliate WUTC that his family had donated the land for Citizen’s Cemetery, where a confederate flag still flies over the graves of confederate soldiers.

“I am about a 5th or 6th generation Chattanoogan. We were one of the first people that came down here,” Gardenhire told WUTC.  “And a matter of fact, if you look at the cemetery across the street from us, that’s the old Gardenhire cemetery, Citizen’s Cemetery. And where the school sits beyond that is where the Gardenhire homestead was before the Chattanooga School of Arts and Science was built.”

Muhammad says that while Gardenhire family’s slave trading history may be in the past, it still holds modern parallels to the ways African Americans are treated in Chattanooga today.

“Black voters are also tired of the likes [of Gardenhire] being true to and upholding their true family heritage, slavery and a superior paternalistic position,” says Muhammad. “By making race and family heritage a part of the campaign, Sen. Gardenhire owes the people of District 10 a full explanation of his family’s slave-trading past”.

Gardenhire’s campaign did not respond for comment at time of publication.

The new revelation could boost turnout for Wilkinson, who has been campaigning door-to-door in Chattanooga.

However, Wilkinson’s campaign declined to comment on the new revelations.  

“Our campaign is really busy right now, working to get out the vote,” Wilkinson told Payday. “I am staying focused on talking to voters.”

Mike Elk is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report and a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and at In These Times Magazine.

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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