Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in Memphis: the story of the German rancher who saved dozens of slaves

The history of Civil Rights is full of horrific episodes of violence and humiliation but, fortunately, there are just as many of mutual aid and small and large acts of heroism, cooperation, solidarity and support. One such is the story of Jacob Burkle and the Underground Railroad.

Who was Jacob Burkle?
All the information we have about him has been passed down orally, so it is scarce and inaccurate. What seems certain is that he was a man born in Germany, a country from which he fled to avoid enlistment in Otto von Bismarck’s Prussian army. Some say that he initially settled in Stuttgart, Arkansas, at the time just a little more than a village, founded by the German Reverend Adam Burkle, but the dates do not quite coincide, Stuttgart having been founded in 1852. It is certain that Burkle arrived in Memphis, considered at the time the most important slave-trading city in Tennessee, where he purchased cattle warehouses and a bakery, which enabled him to earn enough to become wealthy.
Around 1856 he built the Burkle Estate, at 826 North Second Street. Burkle was already part of the Anti-Slavery Movement (the abolitionists, the movement that fought for the abolition of slavery), so he decided to equip his house with a special basement right away, suitable precisely for housing and hiding escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad.

I mentioned something about what the Underground Railroad was in the post about Detroit, but now I want to tell you more about it, without going on too long.

The “Underground Railroad” is neither a railroad nor placed in the underground. The term was used metaphorically, where “Underground” means the secrecy of the route and “Railroad” that it was a route marked by various stages. John Rankin, an abolitionist Presbyterian minister, explained that it was so called because those who passed through it disappeared from view as if they had gone underground and were then secretly passed from one passage to another until they reached a state where they could have been free. It seems that the term was first used by a Washington newspaper in 1839, citing a young slave who hoped to escape slavery “through a railroad that went underground to Boston”. Men sent to capture escaping slaves also often claimed there must have been an underground railroad somewhere where slaves disappeared without a trace.
Actually, the Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes, trails, churches, shelters and safe houses established in the early to mid-nineteenth century, created primarily by free African Americans and abolitionists, people who firmly believed in the right to freedom of every human being and who put their own lives in danger in order to help others. It is estimated that thanks to the Underground Railroad, more than one hundred thousand slaves found freedom between 1810 and 1850 alone, almost half of them reaching Canada.
The whole system also had its own terminology, used to maintain as much secrecy as possible. For example, hiding places were called “stations,” “station masters” were those who hid slaves in their homes (such as Jacob Burkle), runaway slaves were the “passengers,” people who helped them find railroad stations were the “agents,” and those who guided them along the route were the “conductors.” In order not to get lost and follow north, slaves often traveled by following the Ursa Major or the North Star.

In 1990, a special study program was passed, later embodied in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998 signed by Bill Clinton, through which the National Park Service has (and continues to this day) identified Underground Railroad places, to preserve them and tell their stories and those of the people connected to them.

Still standing at 826 North Second Street is Burkle’s antebellum wooden white house, which harkens directly back to the days just before the Civil War.
In 1985 the house was purchased by Helen Phillips, who transformed the home into the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, an independent nonprofit organization. The museum first opened to the public in 1991 and is now run by Elaine Turner and her company Heritage Tours.

As I said, little is known about Burkle because he had every reason to remain as anonymous as possible. Almost all the documents about him were burned or disposed of, and it was a form of self-defense: if anyone found out that he was helping slaves they could report him and they would set fire to his house or he might even end up killed. Because of this excessive secrecy, however, some doubt that Burkle was actually an agent of the Underground Railroad, while for others the very lack of documents, oral testimony, and the special features of his house (such as the trap door and hidden stairs), are all evidence in favor of his involvement.
Burkle, in addition to hiding slaves in the cellar, crawl space and attic of the house, bought slaves at the market and then set them free. Witness to this is Aunt Liddy, a slave whom Burkle bought at the market together with a man, whose identity was never discovered, and whom he kept working in his house-treating them very well-to give the impression that he was a slaveholder and ward off any possible suspicion from him. As soon as the time was ripe, he freed them, directing them along the Underground Railroad to set them free.
The tour of the museum lasts about an hour and shows not only Burkle’s story and the system by which he hid the slaves and let them escape, but more importantly the history of slavery in America, particularly in the South. It tells of the aberrant conditions under which they faced the ship voyage from Africa to the United States, forced to lie between wooden planks without getting up for hours, pissing their pants and not eating or drinking, how slave markets worked, and much more.
One moment in particular was very touching for us: we were seated in one of the rooms and our guide began to play a drum and intone one of the songs that the slaves sang in the camps. One girl, who had come from Georgia to find out the story of her ancestors who she knew had been slaves in Memphis, then freed, was moved to tears as all the few other visitors sang the song. The purpose of the museum is just that: to tell an ugly page of history so that it will never happen again, so that the efforts of those who even lost their lives to defend man’s right to be free will not be in vain.

On January 21, 2024, the museum was heavily damaged by fire. It is currently closed, awaiting renovation.
Those who want to help can make a donation here:

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