Slave Haven – Underground Railroad Museum in Memphis

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If you are visiting the Mid-South I highly suggest touring Slave Haven Memphis and the Burkle Estate.

The Burkle Estate was built in 1849 by Jacob Burkle, livestock trader and bakery owner, who opened his home to help slaves escape to freedom.

The house has 19th-century furnishings but its main feature is the secret cellar and trap doors that offered refuge to runaway slaves.

This dark cellar was their home for days as they sat silently waiting for boats that would take them to other way stations upriver on their way to freedom in the northern states.

After stepping down into the cellar and kneeling on the brick floor of this cramped room, you definitely get a deeper understanding of the slaves’ plight.

Slavery was first introduced to America in 1619 when “The White Lion,” a badly damaged Dutch slave ship carrying twenty kidnapped Africans, arrived on the shore of the Virginia Colony.

The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped slaves from the South. It developed as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts.

The exact dates of its existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War, at which point its efforts continued to undermine the Confederacy in a less-secretive fashion.

Stories have circulated for many years that Memphis was pivotal in the underground railroad and helped slaves escape to freedom.  

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The Burkle Estate, a house near the Mississippi River which, prior to the Civil War, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves make their way north to freedom.

The Burkle Estate is also known as “Slave Haven,” was 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. 

If you are looking for somewhere educational to take your kids this Black History Month I suggest Slave Haven Memphis, Tennessee.

My daughter Madison has been enthralled with all things slavery since we started watching the TV show Underground; which follows a group of slaves who plan a daring escape from a Georgia plantation.

Slave Haven is not a state of the art well-funded and expansive building like the nearby 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.

Underground Railroad & Slave Haven Memphis / Burkle Estate

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. 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.

Who was 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.

Slavery In Memphis

Memphis has a long and complex history with race, power, and civil rights. From pre-Civil War days to 2020, there’s been hatred, slaughtering, and systematic oppression of black people in Tennessee. 

Jacob Burkle was probably one of the first white people in Memphis to go against the majority by hiding slaves in the house’s cellar, crawl space, and likely the attic until the end of the Civil War and full emancipation in 1865.

The Burkle Estate would have been the ideal location for the city’s last stop before heading upriver towards Canada because his home sat right on the Mississippi River and made it easier for slaves to escape.

There is some debate as to whether the Burkle estate was part of the Underground Railroad. The few primary documents supporting the claim were destroying by Burkle’s great-granddaughter.

What remains are oral histories and the house itself, which has several odd and unique features (like a trap door and hidden staircase) that the museum points to as evidence of its true purpose.

Keeping records would have been incredibly dangerous for Burkle, his family, and the escapees, even after the war therefore it’s not a surprise that there are few documents available on the validity of the Burkle Estate.

Regardless of the exact evidence, we know that Jacob Burkle helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom and that Slave Haven continues to educate thousands of visitors each year, including field trips for local school children and international tourists.

The museum tells the history of slavery in Memphis and the Mid-South, detailing the atrocities from capture to enslavement and sometimes escape.

It highlights prominent members of Memphis’ slaving industry, including wealthy trader Wade Bolton for whom Bolton High School is named, as well as leaders of the resistance movement, including Harriet Tubman and Burkle.

Abolitionist in the Mid 1800s

Jacob Burkle built his estate in the 1850s when the battle between oppression and resistance had been raging for decades.

The first Africans were brought to the U.S. in 1619 by Dutch slavers. Black resistance to slavery is as old as slavery itself with well-documented histories of a slave ship and plantation rebellions, subtle means of undermining overseers and production quotas, and, of course, escape via the Underground Railroad.

“It is plausible that an Underground Railroad cell would be operating in a place like Memphis,” said Dowdy.

All manner of people and goods came through Memphis, which was the only place in the region to work, trade, stock up on supplies, and cross the river. And until the mid-1830s, abolitionist sentiments ran high here compared to most Southern cities.

According to Dowdy, the city’s first two majors, Marcus Winchester and Isaac Rawlings supported education for people of color and felt that slavery was economically necessary but morally reprehensible. They both supported solutions to end the institution.

In 1834, the state of Tennessee convened a constitutional convention. Memphis’s delegate called for the state constitution to abolish slavery. Unfortunately, the convention voted instead to strip the right to vote from freedmen, a right previously granted by the 1796 state constitution.

By the time Burkle built his estate 22 years later, sentiments had shifted in Memphis, and abolitionists were pushed underground.

In fact, city officials passed an ordinance that required all persons of African descent to carry a permit to walk or drive a carriage on city streets. It also banned them from holding meetings, include church sessions, without a white person leading.

There’s also a rumor that the Hunt Phelan home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, largely due to an escape tunnel running under the home.

In June of 1865, the practice of chattel slavery was formally abolished across the United States. Burkle went back to a quiet life of selling livestock and anti-Black sentiments remained a steady fixture in the city.

But in 1866, The Memphis Massacre took place. White men burned over 100 homes, churches, and businesses and killed almost 50 African Americans in response to job competition from newly freed slaves and occupation of Memphis by Black Union troops.

It remains among the worst racially motivated riots in U.S. history.

It was really amazing to be able to share this experience with my daughter Madison who is 13 years old, and my mom who is 75 years old.

I have so much respect for all the people involved in the Underground Railroad and what they had to endure; 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 including the secret coded slave quilts. 

The slave quilts 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! 

Slave Haven Museum in Memphis

Conclusion of Slave Haven Memphis

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 Memphis and the Burkle Estate 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.  

The educational component about the true meaning behind different spirituals and the beautiful music played by Ekpe and Company was really worth the tour, especially during Black History Month Memphis.
There is a small selection of books, documents, and African-inspired jewelry for sale in the front of the house.  Don’t expect a lot of frills, expect a Slave Haven.

Beyond just one individual, Slave Haven is also the story of collective power. The power of secret plans and locations shared between a network of people who worked together to undermine an inhuman institution, and it’s only the first chapter in Memphis’ fascinating and unique story of civil rights, collective resistance, and Black political power.

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  1. Wow! I know in my city I just found out that they have an underground railroad exhibit that they have set up for a specified amount of time every year. I just found out about it in the last two years and have missed it both times. I have it on my radar to try to get my hands on tickets this year before it leaves! thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow! That seems like an awesome but emotional museum. What a great opportunity you had to experience the museum with your mother and daughter!

  3. WOW! This looks like an amazing experience. Emotional yet powerful my gosh. The show Underground has been the talk of the town since it aired. I love that it is sparking at interest in younger folks.

  4. What a great experience to share!!! It seems that we have grown up with a censored view of African American History. Definitely putting this on the list for our next trip to Tennessee!

  5. Oh my goodness. I want to visit. I have such respect for what our people endured and how we survived. How awesome that you were able to experience this with your mom and daughter. Beautiful

  6. I’ve been to Memphis a couple of times but had no idea this museum was there. I always get emotional when I experience exhibits like this because it makes it so real. And like you said, so hard to imagine the way they were treated.

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