the wonderful world of veena.

24 June 2014

marvelous memphis: slave haven underground railroad museum.

Did you know that Memphis has an Underground Railroad museum?

Neither did I, until about 2 weeks ago. But once I heard about it, I could not get it out of my head, so while I was living on Mud Island last week, I decided to check it out for myself.

I am so glad I did.

The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, also referred to as the Burkle Estate, is the former home of Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant who used his home to provide a safe haven for slaves escaping to Canada. Burkle and his wife had left an oppressive Germany because they did not agree with conscription, and they landed in an America that had its own form of oppression, so they worked to help slaves find their way to freedom.

[background on the house and the man who built it]
During the tour, which lasts about an hour, you hear a brief history of the slave trade and the Middle Passage, learn about abolitionists as well as how slaves helped each other along the Underground Railroad, and tour the Burkle home and hear about their family and the role they played in helping slaves. All the information about the Burkle family's involvement with the Underground Railroad comes from oral history that was passed down from Jacob Burkle's granddaughter in the mid-twentieth century.

[the home that served as a safe haven for slaves seeking freedom and a better life]
I learned a number of things during the tour that I did not previously know. I learned about the significance of magnolia trees outside a Southern home [they often indicated a safe haven for slaves on the run]. I learned about how steamboat operators were complicit in hiding slaves on their vessels as they traveled upriver. I learned that slaves used songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Wade in the Water" to share knowledge about escaping. I learned about the secret signs that were embedded in the quilts slaves made; often the quilts signaled routes for escaping slaves to follow or indicated safe passage. And I learned that the highest reward ever offered for a runaway slave was for Harriet Tubman; slave owners got together and offered a reward of $40,000 for her return. In today's economy, that equates to just under $350,000.

[keep an eye out for this sign. blink and you might miss it!]
It's a pretty simple tour, but I loved it. It was informative without being overwhelming, and I really liked the casual feel of it. Since the house is small, only one tour can run at a time, so depending on when you arrive, you might be added on to the middle of an ongoing tour and then looped back around. Since the tour is split into three distinct categories rather than following a specific chronological order, it's fine to join in the middle, which I did when I arrived.

[a fountain in the garden; the plaque reads, "In memory of those slaves who traveled through here on the road to freedom"]
Although the museum has been in existence since 1991, the Director told me that it has really been in the last 10 years or so that it has been operating as it is currently. It is a licensed non-profit, so all the proceeds from admission prices and gift shop sales go directly back into the maintenance and upkeep of the house and tour.

All three women who lead the tour are extremely nice and knowledgeable, and they were all happy to answer questions or just to chat about the Underground Railroad in general and the house and family in particular. I ended up spending about 1.5 hours in the house, but I could easily have hung around for another half hour; I'd say an average visit would take at least an hour.

There is a small gift shop with items for sale. You can purchase t-shirts, bags and jewelry that are made in Africa, and handmade dolls. Currently they don't have postcards, but I am hopeful those will be on deck soon.

If you're interested:
826 N Second St, about 4 blocks north of A W Willis / 901.527.3427
Open 10am-4pm Monday-Saturday / Closed Sunday
Admission $10 / Students age 3-17 $8

If you are interested in history, the abolitionist movement, or just learning about an interesting piece of Memphis history, definitely check out this museum.

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