Slave Haven is a historic stop on the underground railroad and I had no clue this museum was in Memphis until one month ago. I’m slightly perturbed at myself for not knowing Memphis was home to a stop on the Underground Railroad. While my daughter Madison was on Spring Break, I decided to make the drive from Nashville to Memphis. My daughter Madison has been enthralled with all things slavery since we started watching the new TV show Underground; which follows a group of slaves who plan a daring escape from a Georgia plantation to cross 600 miles to freedom. In contrast to the well-funded and expansive Civil Rights Museum; the Underground Railroad House is a minimal and sparse exhibition, but it makes up for this by being inter-active with a guided tour through the house.
What exactly was the Underground Railroad?
The Underground Railroad served as the route to freedom for enslaved Africans in the United States, traveling from the South to the Northern U.S. States or Canada. The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It got its name because its activities had to be carried out in secret, using darkness or disguise. Various routes were called lines; stopping places were called stations, and those who aided along the way were conductors. Their charges were known as packages or freight. The network of routes extended through 14 Northern states and “the promised land” of Canada, which was beyond the reach of fugitive-slave hunters. Those who most actively assisted slaves to escape by way of the “Underground railroad” were members of the free black community (including former slaves like Harriet Tubman), Northern abolitionists, philanthropists and church leaders like Jacob Burkle.
JACOB BURKLE, Master of the Burkle Estate, is somewhat of a secret in Memphis history. According to the few records available, Jacob was part of a wave of German immigrants who came to America in the mid-19th century fleeing conscription into Bismarck’s military. In Memphis, Burkle was a moderately prosperous owner of a stockyard north of downtown Memphis. The house, built-in 1849; overlooked the stockyards and the Mississippi River three blocks away. The letters “BURKL” are faintly visible on the building’s north face; the rest has faded away.
Jacob Burkle established the Memphis Stockyards on the site of his home, which he built with a cellar and a series of tunnels to hide escaping slaves until they could be moved in his railroad cars. The slaves would wait in the house until a shipment of cattle came through so they could hide in the hay and ride all the way to Canada where they were welcomed with open arms into freedom. Burkle’s Underground Railroad operated from 1849 until his death in 1865. He even hid his activities from his family, probably for their own protection, as slave catchers always suspected him of harboring runaway slaves and had kicked in his door more than once searching for slaves.
It was really amazing to be able to share this experience along this historical stop on the underground railroadwith my daughter Madison who is 9 years old, and my mom who is 71 years old. I have so much respect for all the people involved in the Underground Railroad and what they had to endure; and because of them I am able to provide a better life for my mom and daughter. We enjoyed seeing some of the historical artifacts and hearing the history of the house and Jacob Burkle. The secret coded slave quilts was a first for me as well, and if you are not familiar with slave quilts; they were used to communicate information about how to escape to freedom because slaves were not allowed to read or write without fear of being whipped or even killed.
Next on our journey was going down into the cellar to see the actual hiding place for the slaves. This was especially emotional for me! It’s sort of hard to believe people were actually treated this way and had to go through something like that. I am grateful for historical places like Slave Haven that help us remember and honor those who came before us and made it possible for me to be where I am today.
It’s very important to tell the stories of African-Americans and how they survived the atrocities of slavery. I make sure my daughter is aware of her history and how blessed she is to be able to get an education, practice ballet, tap, and have friends of different nationalities. Slave Haven has a wealth of invaluable historical information to share, and I would recommend Slave Haven for both children and adults.
The historical components of the tour included the destruction of lives through the slave trade; how they managed to survive daily life, and the ability of the slave community to communicate how to escape through quilts and other signs. One of my favorite books is the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Slave Haven gave me a historical and accurate reenactment of a real stop on the Underground Railroad as described in the book; that was just amazing!