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“You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” There is no way to walk in the shoes of an African Slave in the Antebellum South or hitch a ride on the Underground Railroad today but a visit to Slave Haven in Memphis is as close as you can come.

The simple exterior belies the rich heritage inside.


 

I visited Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum on a recent press trip to Memphis just after I toured the National Civil Rights Museum. For more on that museum, see http://www.americanroads.net/civil_rights_winter2015.htm ) This was a perfect follow up.

 Elaine Turner, the Museum Director and co-owner of Heritage Tours, met us at the door and told us the story behind the museum.

The simple white frame house was built in 1856 for Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant who owned Memphis Stockyard. Jacob had fled an oppressive Bismarck régime in Germany only to see oppression in his adopted country in the form of slavery. He must have decided then and there to do something about it.

The house was very secluded and only two blocks from the Mississippi River.  It was a perfect location where he could hide slaves until they could travel up the Mississippi hidden in crates or other secret places aboard a steamboat and then on across the Ohio River and into Canada. 

The Burkle family lived in house until 1978. Family stories passed on as oral history from Jacob to his daughter, Rebecca Burkle Lawless, and then her daughter, Katherine Compton. Katherine Compton lived in house until 1978 and told the family secret about her grandfather’s Underground Railroad activities. Then at Katherine’s death, her daughter, called Little Katherine, burned all family records that might prove or disprove the story.  

Still, lots of things collaborate the stories. First off, why would someone in the south in the era lived in tell such a story if it were not the truth. Other evidence collaborates the story. Neighbors’ oral histories tell the same stories about the Burkles. One local Memphis resident who was tutored by Ms. Compton recalls that she told  him of her grandfather's Underground Railroad activities.

The museum’s exhibits show the entire history of slavery from captivity in Africa and the slave markets to the life of a slave. Memphis was a very active slave market and the museum had many advertisements of slave sales. Artifacts like an iron slave collar and whips bring a vivid realism to the plight of slaves.

Elaine tells why it was forbidden to teach a slave to read or write in most states. If a slave could read and write they could write their own or other’s emancipation papers.  Most owners did not want to own slaves from the same African villages to keep them from communicating. Even drums which were a common means of communicating between villages were taken from the slaves. So Africans developed a secret and common language, songs. Songs like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot “contained secret messages about the underground railroad.  Elaine translated, ”‘Swing”’ means run; ‘Low’ means hide; ‘Chariot’ is  a means of transportation. Might be a false bottomed wagon or a crate; ‘home’ is the secret word for freedom; ‘Jordan’ is a river.  We don’t have a Jordan around but the Ohio was the river they had to get across to freedom.  ‘A band of angels’ meant abolitionists.

To the slaves the song “Wade in the Water” meant that water hid their tracks and scent. The masters thought they were singing about getting baptized.”

Quilts on display at Slave Haven.

Other symbols might have been things like a lantern in the window of an abolition’s home which told runaways it was safe to come on in. If the light was not on it meant danger stay away. Quilts were another common message passer. There are several old quilts at the museum and Elaine explained some of them, “Your great grandmother would not wash the quilt.  She would air it on the clothesline but in slave times, the pattern were symbols that told the runaway slave many things. Different quilts hung on a line might convey a certain messages. Such as the wagon wheel pattern meaning be prepared to run soon or a Cleveland Ohio Quilt pattern might mean you will cross over Lake Erie to Canada. The Crossroads pattern might have many meaning. Elaine told us, “Once you cross over the crossroad into Canada, you have also passed a crossroads in your life. You would never see your enslaved loved ones again."

Elaine explains the map of Freedom Routes slaves would take.

Elaine shows the map with secret routes to freedom used by slaves. From Memphis the Mississippi river to the Ohio to Cairo and from there up to Canada.

Once a runaway slave reached the Burkle home, there were several clever hiding places. One secret passage was a way to get in the cellar from what was once a side porch.  There was a trap door discovered several years ago in the floor opening to a crawl space leading to the cellar.  A stairway from the side porch leads to the cellar in a more conventional way and we were allowed to descend into the dark dreary space. There were a few spaces in the brick foundation for air and light. What a miserable place to have to wait for a chance to run for your very life. From inside the cellar there is another clue to Jacob Burkle’s secret.  A staircase in the celler leads up to a solid brick wall. As Elaine asked, “who would build a staircase leading to a wall?”

The secret trap door  Steps into the cellar 
 

Obviously at one time there was an opening here. It would have led to the outside of the house and that two block run to the river.

You walk in the shoes of not only the runaway slaves but the abolitionist that risked their lives to help the slaves to freedom. Jacob Burkle was not a stupid man and he knew if his neighbors suspected what he was doing it would mean his life. To cover his tracks, he bought two slaves of his own. They are represented at the museum by two mannequins in the kitchen, Aunt Liddy and an unknown man. After he had kept them for awhile, he helped them escape. When he was sure they were safely away, Burkle put a notice in the paper saying he was “searching for his two runaway slaves.

How the house came to be discovered as a stop on the Underground Railroad is a story in itself. Mrs. Phillips bought the house in 1985. She had no clue as to its history other than that it had been in the Burkle family.  Dr Otis Johnson, an anthropologist, bought a house behind hers. He did some research that led him to the discovery of the house’s past. When Mrs. Philips discovered the truth about the home, she contacted Elaine and Heritage Tours and then created a non-profit and donated the house to preserve the history.  Mrs. Philips was an antique collector and purchased period antiques to furnish the house as it would have been in Jacob’s time.  Tours began in 1991. 

Products and images used to sterotype Africans left scars that are still present

Obviously much is still unknown about the Underground Railroad but one letter of thanks escaped being destroyed when “Little Katherine” Compton burned the papers at her mother’s death. That, the oral histories and the unmistakable evidence in this house, confirmed for me that this was once an important stop in that secret railroad. I particularly enjoyed the museum because I had recently finished my book, “Under a Black Flag,” where one of my former slave characters is working as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and so much I learned here collaborated the hard-to-find knowledge I had dug up researching the Railroad.

Elaine sums up the Underground Railroad thus, “I consider the Underground Railroad the most successful undercover operation that ever occurred in the United States and that includes the FBI. They didn’t have all the modern surveillance equipment but they had a good heart.”

For more info:

http://www.slavehavenundergroundrailroadmuseum.org/

 


 

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