Slave Haven Museum in Memphis gives unique perspective on the Underground Railroad

Updated: Feb. 12, 2020 at 5:10 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - In honor of Black History Month, we’re showing you the incredible history behind the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in North Memphis.

All of us have heard of the National Civil Rights Museum. The director of the Slave Haven Museum says they may be lesser known, but with all they have to offer they believe every Memphian should visit at least once and learn.

Inside an inconspicuous house in North Memphis, a secret was held for 150 years.

“It’s quite a story,” said Elaine Turner, museum director. “It is just eye opening.”

Now, it’s a place where everyone can learn.

"There's just so much to see here," Turner said. "You get a full history lesson."

The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is located in the former home of Jacob Burkle. Built in 1856, this home was used for years as a safe house for runaway slaves on their journey to freedom in Canada.

"This is quite a treasure here in Memphis," Turner said.

Turner says this known stop on the underground railroad is the only one of it’s kind in the southern United States.

“We don’t know of another one here in the Mid-South at all,” Turner said.

A mannequin in the parlor represents the homeowner, Burkle, since no known photos of him exist. Burkle was an immigrant from Germany.

“He had fled oppression in Germany and apparently he saw oppression here in Memphis and that disturbed him,” Turner said. “And he wanted to do something about it.”

In the 1850s, Burkle’s home was remote. He owned a large plot of land and several stockyards, making it an ideal location for the Underground Railroad. Burkle and his family risked everything to help.

“He would have been killed, this house would have been burned down and his family driven out,” Turner said. “That would have been the end of the Burkle family.”

The secrets inside this home were only discovered in the 1990s, and it’s full of hidden surprises.

“This trap door leads to a cellar,” Turner said.

Inside Burkle’s cellar, runaway slaves on their journey would hide. The only light and air for the cellar would come from holes in the walls.

"He would give them a signal that it was time to leave when a boat was waiting on the river," Turner said.

When setting up the museum, Turner discovered another hidden compartment used to enter the home.

With an incredible secret now out in the open, the Slave Haven Museum offers an immersive experience, bringing visitors inside the Underground Railroad.

“We hope to give people and experience that they have never had,” Turner said.

The Slave Haven Museum is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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