5 Star Stories: The story of Memphis’ role in the road to freedom on the Underground Railroad

Updated: Jan. 26, 2021 at 10:17 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - You may have learned about Harriet Tubman in school or from last year’s Academy Award-nominated movie “Harriet” -- the dramatic true story of a runaway slave, abolitionist and Underground Railroad “conductor” who made 19 trips back to the south to help free hundreds of other slaves.

Memphis folklore tells of a lesser-known “conductor” on the Underground Railroad -- a man whose home served as a hideout for slaves on their journey to freedom.

According to the 1860 Census, about 4,000,000 slaves lived in the United States that year, but only about 100,000 total actually made it to freedom. Many of them found themselves in the Memphis area.

The director of the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in Memphis said it had a lot to do with the city’s location.

“Memphis is located right here on the banks of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River is a main route north. So, naturally, that was one of the ways they could get to the north by using the Mississippi River,” explained Elaine Turner.

Slave Haven is located inside a home built in 1849 by a man named Jacob Burkle. The Burkle estate sits about two blocks away from the river. And although it’s just blocks away from the heart of downtown, during that time it was considered rural and on the outskirts.

Publicly, Burkle was a baker who also traded livestock. But privately, many believe, he was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad and his home a stop or “depot” along the way north to freedom.

“Well, we know that Jacob Burkle was a German immigrant," said Turner. “Came over from Germany after the German Revolution of the 1840s to avoid being drafted into the military because it was a very oppressive government in Germany at that time. So he along with thousands of other Germans left their country and came here to the United States. Well, Jacob Burkle happened to settle in the south and here he encounters another oppressive system, which is slavery.”

Turner believes Burkle hid runaway slaves in the home’s attic and cellar which she showed us when we visited and is a part of the Slave Haven tour. She also believes Burkle might have hidden runaways in a crawl space under his house where there was once an entrance that has since been cemented shut and also has access to the home through a trap door in a back room of the house.

But back then, getting to the Burkle estate or any of the other depots used as part of the Underground Railroad was dangerous.

According to the University of Memphis history professor Dr. Beverly Bond, “The underground railroad was just a network, a connecting network of sympathetic people who helped enslaved people who were trying to escape. I think people should not imagine that this is, like a, carefully laid out route that any person would know. You would be taking your chances just to even begin this process. But to actually be able to locate the underground railroad safe houses and to make those connections, you have to think this is not something that’s like publicized. Because if you were a person like Mr. Burkle, the community didn’t tolerate, you know, if they were aware, if they even thought that you were involved in this. This was dangerous. For you and your family.”

Bond added that for many runaway slaves, Memphis was more than just a stop -- it was a destination.

“But Memphis had a large enslaved Black population who were essentially either working as hired workers, domestic workers or as laborers. So you could imagine that an escaping person, an enslaved person, trying to escape from say a farmer plantation in Germantown or in Shelby County, might come to Memphis because there was a population they could hide out in. There were relatives possibly that they might have or friends and in some cases they did. Some people were successful in remaining in the city for a period of time because they could hide,” said Bond.

But, many others went north to states where slavery was not in practice, but even then they were often still not places where former slaves felt welcome or safe.

“Being a free Black person was, you know, didn’t necessarily mean that you were welcomed as a part of that society. You were constantly looking over your shoulder if you were an escaped slave. Because you had all, by 1850 or after 1850, you got this really, really harsh fugitive slave law that will motivate some escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad to take that next step and leave the United States and go into Canada,” explained Bond.

According to the National Humanities Center, “When Great Britain abolished slavery in its empire in 1834, thus making all its possessions free territory” including Canada, “Up to thirty-thousand slaves fled” to that country where they wouldn’t be captured and returned to their slave owners.

Numerous fugitive settlements were also set in that country, primarily in western Ontario.

The historical significance of the Burkle Estate in Memphis was only discovered over the past three decades. Now a museum, it serves as not only a shrine to the brave slaves who sought refuge here but also the Memphians who dared to go against societal norms.

As Turner said, “That was a dangerous thing for Jacob Burkle to have done. But he took that risk. Because he believed in justice. He believed that every person should be free and he was willing to risk his life for that. But it’s important to know that even during the time of slavery there were people who were courageous, who stood up for right, for justice, risking their lives.”

To learn more about the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum at the Burkle Estate in Memphis or schedule a tour, click on the link: http://slavehavenmemphis.com/

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