The Underground Railroad served as the route to freedom for enslaved Africans in the United States, traveling from the South to the Northern U.S. States or Canada. But, do you know what the Underground Railroad actually was in the literal and figurative sense? Do you have any idea what it was like for slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad? On this episode of The Axiom Amnesia Theory, Heit & Cheri share their experiences and interviews at the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum at the Burkle Estate in Memphis, Tennessee.
Topics discussed include defining the Underground Railroad, Joseph Burkle, overview of the slaves’ escape to the North, the economics of slavery in Memphis, museum artifacts, risks involved in running away and harboring runaway slaves, horrific conditions enslaved Africans endured on the slave ships, the abolitionist movement, the secret codes and languages that the slaves used to coordinate escapes, the quilt code system, tour of rooms and hiding places in the Burkle house, and more!
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- Heit & Cheri share their experiences and interviews at the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum at the Burkle Estate in Memphis, Tennessee.
- What is the Underground Railroad? Is it a trail? Is it a path? Is it the people who helped along the way?
- The Underground Railroad Museum is located in the Burkle Estate. Our gracious host, Elaine Lee Turner, owner of Heritage Tours tells us more about the house and museum.
- Discussion about the Burkle Estate, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant, was among those in the anti-slavery movement who risked their lives to help escaping Africans by harboring them in their homes and aiding them on their journey to freedom. Cloaked away in secrecy, Burkle, a stockyard owner, operated an underground Railroad way station on the outskirts of Memphis from around 1855 until the abolition of slavery. Burkle’s unsuspecting, modest home, located near the banks of the Mississippi River, provided refuge for runaway slaves during their flight to freedom in the North.
Source: Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum
- The house was only two blocks from the Mississippi River, which served as a guide to those who were traveling north to freedom.
- Was Canada the ultimate goal for the people fleeing North? Because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the people who sought refuge at the Burkle Estate were heading to Canada to ensure that they could not be re-enslaved if captured in the “free” U.S. states.
- The Burkle lived in the house from 1856 until 1978. However, the family didn’t tell the secret of the house until 1991.
- “Underground” means “secret”, and the Burkle house was a place where many of the runaways could hide away and make it safe to freedom in Canada.
- Discussion about what it must have been like to live in that house and hide out there as a slave.
- Elaine Lee Turner tells us about Jacob Burkle’s daughter, Rebecca (born in the house), and her daughter Katherine, who lived in the house until 1977. Katherine was actually the one who told the family secret.
- Discussion about the economics of slavery in Memphis. The museum has artifacts that depict the sale of slaves right there in downtown Memphis.
- It took a lot of courage for Burkle to take the risk to hide runaway slaves in his home. It was also a huge risk for the slaves who ran away. If caught, they might be killed or returned to slavery.
- On yesterday’s show, Episode 220: In High Cotton, we talked about the economics of cotton in Memphis. Now, we understand the connection between the sale of slaves for free labor to harvest the cotton.
- If you lived back then, would you risk your life to hide runaway slaves in your home?
- Discussion about the lack of incentive to help runaways on the part of whites. They only had the risk aspect–whereas the sales at least reaped the benefit of freedom if they made it to the North.
- How long would it take for slaves to escape to the North? It is really impossible to predict the length of time it would take for an enslaved African to escape from the South all the way to Canada, because they encountered so many obstacles. it was a conditional journey–whatever was necessary at the time–they may have had to hide in a specific area for weeks until it was safe or take a detour–they did. Once they left the plantation, they didn’t want to turn back. As long as they kept making their way North, they would surely get there. There was no turning back.
- The road to freedom was very unpredictable for the runaway slaves.
- Discussion about the challenge of going from structured life as a slave on the plantation to running away. It is probably in the same vein as the fear people have of leaving modern day corporate wage slavers.
- Discussion about the horrific conditions enslaved Africans endured on the slave ships, then while actually enslaved.
- one of the artifacts, “Flight to Freedom”, is a map that depicts the secret routes to take to get to the free areas of the country and Canada.
- Discussion about the abolitionist movement. Who were they? They were people of various races and genders. They simply wanted to exercise good will for their fellow man. There were hundreds of abolitionists. the museum has a wall dedicated to photos of known abolitionists.
- People of any color, walk of life, gender, religion, creed can help to do the right thing where human rights violations are concerned.
- Discussion about opposing the prevailing attitudes and power structure. Even the people who are subject to the oppression can be turned against you/
- Discussion about the secret codes and languages that the slaves used to coordinate escapes. they used the talking drum to send messages, songs (spirituals), they used quilts and other things to communicate among each other.
- Discussion about how women would hang these quilts on the clothes lines to air them out. There were secrets in the quilts to teach people the things they needed to know about how to run away. there are over 20 codes in the quilt code system. It would tell them how to run away, where to go whom to see, etc. After the person learned all of the quilt codes, signs in nature, and songs, then they were ready to run. If they wanted to be successful in their flight to freedom, they had to prepare to avoid capture.
- If you know the signs in nature, you will know direction regardless of the presence of daylight.
- These Africans–our ancestors–were ingenious! they learned how to manipulate the language for their benefit, such that the slave-masters couldn’t understand what they were doing right under their noses.
- Discussion about the sacrifices of those who never ran away themselves, but helped so many people to reach freedom.
- Cheri discusses becoming emotional during the tour as she imagines the sacrifices made for the young people to be free. they understood that they would never see their loved ones again.
- When you are under those conditions, your entire life is actually prepping you for escape.
- If you visit the museum, you will be able to see all of the different quilt codes. When you look at the designs on the quilts, it just looks like a quilt if you don’t know the codes.
- Common depictions of the slave are as this simple character that wasn’t smart, but when you look at how they were able to survive and plan escapes, you see that they were far from stupid.
- Discussion about the modern day manipulation of the “standard” English language such that outsiders cannot understand it well.
- Discussion about the trap door in the home and the experience of going down into the cellar of the house. The trap door, which leads to the cellar, was actually not discovered until a few years ago. This is one of the ways that the runaway slaves entered the home.
- the cellar was the main hiding area in the house. the cellar was a very small room, with low ceilings. It was dark and damp.
- The cellar was the first room built in the house, and it is believed that Jacob Burkle built the house with the intention of hiding runaway slaves.
- They were on the way to freedom. They only had two choices, run away or stay a slave.
- Today, people try to make the decision to run away as if it was simple, but it probably wasn’t as simple as it seemed.
- Discussion about people who say they would have most certainly run away had they lived in those times.
- Discussion about our goal of not understanding the history and relating it to where we are today. Elaine Lee Turner explains that if we understood the courage and fortitude that our ancestors, we could understand that we have that within us as well.
- Heit & Cheri felt that the experience of visiting The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum was awesome. They had never visited a stop where people spent time while escaping to freedom.
- Discussion about the family quilts that were made from the clothing of people who were departed–died, run away, or sold away. It was really sad.
- Many of the artifacts were erie, because you know that these were the actual whips and other tools used to enslave people.
- If you are in Memphis, visiting the Slave Have Underground Railroad Museum is a must! For information on how to visit the museum visit their website or contact them at:
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum (Berkle House)
826 NORTH SECOND STREET
MEMPHIS, TN 38173
(901) 527-3227 / (901) 527-7711
- We would like to give a special thanks to Elaine Lee Turner and her daughters who run the museum and made this podcast possible. We would also like to give a special thanks to our Memphis hosts Toni and Reo of Zulu Productions for their support and audio/video work during the visit.
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