After breakfast at the hotel, I walked to the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, which was a little over a mile away. Normally I like walking, especially in a strange city, but I am older and my aches are worse and at some point I realized I had made a mistake but I managed to push through.
The museum itself is an unassuming house near some other homes and empty lots.
You enter through the back door and when I got there, a tour was already in progress. The tours are constant and you just join them wherever they are and then when they start again, you get to see what you missed.
When I joined, they were in the bedroom and the guide gave those of us who had not been there at the start a quick recap. Jacob Burkle left Germany in the late 1840s. He and his brother had left because of a revolution that they did not want any part of. The brother settled in Arkansas, founding a town called Stuttgart, named after their hometown. Eventually, Jacob made his way to the area that is now Memphis. When he bought the land, it was not part of Memphis. He owned the Memphis Stockyards and built his home close to the Mississippi River. At the time the home was surrounded by woods. The last Burkle to live in the home was his granddaughter, who died in 1978. Before she died, she told the secret – her grandfather had helped slaves escape to the North and his home was part of the Underground Railroad. The woman who bought the house did not know its history but she soon found out. She started a foundation and when she died, she left the home to the foundation, for the home to become a museum. All the period furniture in the house had been purchased by the last owner, so none was original to the Burkles.
I noticed no one was taking photographs, so I was not sure if I was allowed to. I took a few photos before I overheard in the other room someone being told that no photos were allowed, so then I stopped.
Burkle was a wealthy man in the South. So, he bought two slaves so it would not seem suspicious. Miss Lily and the man (no one knows his name) worked for Burkle for a while and then he let them escape, where they lived out the rest of their lives in Canada. He put an ad in the paper about his runaway slaves in order to keep up appearances.
There are two very moving moments during the tour. The first is when they lift up a part of the floor so that you can see the crawlspace under the house. It is two feet high. People would remove bricks from the side of the house and crawl in the dirt under the house to another hole in the brick that led to the basement. We walked down to the basement and it is small. People would crawl through the hole and into the dark basement. After we all were in the basement, the guide turned out the light so that we were all in the dark. A lot of people huddled together in a small dark room. We were just there for a few minutes. What about those who were there for days or weeks? It was a short distance to the river but they had to wait until it was safe to go there and take a boat to the North.
Archeologists who have examined the house say that because of the position of the porch (which is now enclosed but would have been open then) and the basement, that the home was probably built specifically to hide runaway slaves.
Kitchen with stove, icebox, and homemade washing board.
The tour starts in a room with an exhibit of musical instruments both from Africa and those made by slaves.
Then we sit a room surrounded by quilts. The quilts had messages, letting people know what direction to go or that this was a safe house. Songs were also used as code. The guide sang some of the songs and he had a beautiful voice. The magnolia tree outside had been planted by Burkle. They are not native to Memphis. It is likely that people were told to find the white home with magnolia tree outside (magnolias are green all year long).
We were given a history of the slave trade and the abolitionist movement. The guide pointed out that on Adams Street there is a marker that notes the spot as the home of Nathan Bedford Forrest. It is actually where his slave market stood (another marker has been added to clear up the history). After the Civil War, Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Every July 13th, people would flock to Memphis to Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, dressed in antebellum and Civil War clothing, where he and his wife were buried to celebrate his birthday. The statue came down when so many other Confederate statues came down and the park was renamed Health Sciences Park. The racists may still celebrate Forrest’s birthday but they do it elsewhere.
Once the tour moved to the bedroom, I said my goodbyes to the guide. Outside is a shack and a barn. There is not much explanation of what they are – reproductions or originals. There were also two very affectionate kittens meowing over and over for attention.
By Carene Lydia Lopez