A few days ago, I heard about a place unknown to most Memphians and perhaps forgotten on purpose. And while our city is struggling to make a name for itself, its a place that we cant afford to ignore. Located in a part of downtown, way past Peabody Place and Auto Zone Park among boarded up old homes and dilapidated buildings,
its a place that forces us to check our egos at the door and face a painful piece of our history. The Burkle Estate, also known as Slave Haven, was once a stop on the Underground Railroad and is an important key to understanding the climate of Memphis today.
Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant, built the home in 1855, and by chance became one of the most famous sympathizers of the anti-slave movement in Southern history. He aided in the escape of hundreds of slaves whom he hid in his cellar, all the while catering to traveling slave traders at his stockyard. In 1978, his granddaughter died and his home was transformed into a museum and a site on the National Historic Register.
When I visited the house, I was lucky enough to blend in with a group of students from Birmingham as they began a guided tour. And cocky that I was fully enlightened on the history of slavery, I began to learn a history lesson that was beyond any of my formal education.
The estate is flanked by massive Magnolias that were among the first to be imported from New Orleans and seem to further dwarf the already tiny cottage. As our group entered the foyer, startling auction notices and bills of sale met us from the walls and served to create a hushed and somber blanket over the previously rowdy camera-happy tourists outside.
The auction notices were a shocking reminder of events that formed our city and most of them, listing the skills and prices of men, women, and children, named Memphis Adams Street as the biggest and best buyers market. In the 1850s, Adams Street was the primary slave district and the home of Memphis most infamous citizen, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Though he was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, there is still a plaque on Adams touting him as a successful businessman and a father of our city with no mention of what his enterprises were.
Posters brag of slaves brought from all over the country and the cleanest and most well behaved negroes to speak of. All too real are the reward notices for runaway slaves and an advertisement for something called a bell collar, a contraption worn by bad slaves to stop them from escaping and to aid in their capture. Portraits of abolitionists and sympathizers line the foyer as well. There is even a reward notice for Harriet Tubman for the considerable sum of 40,000. We all stared in disbelief as we learned about her talent as a master of disguise, as she often dressed as a man and was never captured.
In a tiny front room, our guide showed us quilts fashioned in secret codes, some of which that were actual maps to freedom. Squares patterns represented scales in increments of miles and the number of days that it would take a slave to cover the distance. Star patterns represented the North Star, and a pattern called the drunkards path taught escaped slaves how to avoid bloodhounds by traveling in a zigzag to confuse them.
On the mantle, there is drum, which until outlawed by slave owners, was used to communicate to other slaves that one of them was attempting to run away and to aid in their escape. We learned that African spirituals were
even a means to relay messages about how to get to safe havens.
Other rooms lead to what was once a back porch where a trap door led slaves from the backyard down into a tunnel under the house and then to a cellar on the other side. You can actually walk down some steep stairs to the cellar where the slaves stayed until they were told to climb through an unbelievably small hole in the brick wall and run to the Mississippi to catch a riverboat to Canada.
The cellar and the tunnel are so small it is impossible to imagine until you see it yourself. As we went down the narrow steps, we were told about slave mothers who were forced to quiet their infants by striking them with rocks to cause unconsciousness sometimes inadvertently killing them. The close quarters of the cellar which allowed only ten or so of us to enter at a time, once held fifty or more men, women, and children who silently sat in the dark for weeks at a time waiting for word from Burkle.
The tour ended here and we were invited to explore the rest of the house and grounds at our leisure. We each filed down a side porch, now able to look closely at other points of interests like a wall covered in stereotypical ads for whiskey and even vacation spots and another hall of African masks recreated by slaves in America.
The Burkle Estate is not exactly a fun thing to do, and my intention by urging you to visit is not to drag us back to that part of our past or discount the strides weve made in racial harmony. But in a city that is 60 percent black with both black city and county mayors, we still have a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest located in a public park and plaques all over downtown that cloud the truth.
Memphis is chock full of inconsistencies and while we are beginning to gain confidence that we are a forward-thinking and modern city, it is imperative that we remember how we got here and maybe why it took us so long.
The Burkle Estate is open from 10 to 4 Monday through Saturday and guided tours are available by appointment only. The cost is $6 per person and $4 for students under 17. It Is located at 826 Second St. For more information, call 527-3427.