Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum
The legend of the Burkle Estate, a modest white clapboard house on North 2nd Street, has given rise to the Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum (826 N. 2nd St., 901/527-3427, summer Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., winter Wed.–Sat. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., adults $6, youth $4). The museum here tells the story of slavery and the Underground Railroad, which helped thousands of slaves escape to freedom in the North (and, after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, to Canada).
Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant and owner of the Memphis Stockyard, is said to have built the Burkle Estate around 1850. Escaping slaves would have hidden in a root cellar beneath the house before making the 1,500-foot trip to the banks of the Mississippi, where they made a further journey north.
Skeptics say that there is no evidence of this story, and even point to documents that show that Burkle may not have purchased the property until 1871, well after the end of slavery. Advocates for the Underground Railroad story say that it was the nature of the railroad to be secret, so there is nothing unusual about a lack of concrete evidence.
Visitors today need not be too concerned with the details of the debate; the Slavehaven museum does a good job of highlighting the brutality of the slave trade and slavery, and the ingenuity and bravery it took for slaves to escape. Perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibit are the quilts that demonstrate the way that slaves used quilting patterns to send messages to one another. Other displays show advertisements for Memphis slave auctions and images from the early 20th century that depict damaging racial stereotypes.
The museum is operated by Heritage Tours of Memphis and staff are available to conduct guided tours of the property.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition