Memphis – Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum

Went to Memphis for a few days in late February. So much history in that town.

I think the most interesting place we went was the Slave Haven Underground Railroad museum. The “railroad”, of course, wasn’t a real, physical railroad, but a series of paths that escaped slaves could use to journey north to Canada. They were helped by many people along the way.

The museum didn’t allow taking pictures, which is too bad because they had a lot of pieces from the newspapers of the times that bring home just how entrenched and horrifying the practice of selling slaves was. Newspaper ads sold slaves just like cattle: Prime, strong stock; tell us what you want and we can get it; stock suitable for housework or fieldwork; etc. Pictures of how slaves were shipped, which is side by side on large boards, which were stacked on top of each other like layer cake. The layers couldn’t have been more than 18″ high. There was no room for the people to move around, and they were only let out for an hour a day to eat, “exercise”, etc. They traveled all the way from Africa to Jamaica, Britain, America in this way. And this went on for 300 years.

The museum is in the home of an upstanding pillar of the community, Jacob Burkle, owner of the stockyards, quite well-to-do. And he was secretly an abolitionist. The stockyards were close to the river, and his house was close to the stockyards, which made it easier for escaped slaves to get to his house. They entered via a hole under the house, and stayed in the brick-lined basement until it was safe to move them on.

Being an abolitionist was quite dangerous. Burkle had to keep up appearances. Being well-to-do, he was expected to have slaves in his house, and so he did. I think they must have been in on the deception, don’t know how he’d have managed it otherwise, but I don’t remember the tour guide mentioning that.

The museum also contains examples of the quilts that were used to transmit messages along the route of the “railroad”. Various designs depicted directions on what to do next. Those designs seem to have been based on original African designs, which is something I hadn’t heard before. Again, sorry, no pictures, but I did get a really good book on the quilts, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Quite interesting.

All this is of interest to me because my great-great-great aunt Jennie A Nelson grew up on a farm in Ohio that was a stop/station on the railroad. I have her memoirs of that time and am working on developing her story. This museum gave me more detail for that.

A movie about the British version of ending the slave trade is “Amazing Grace”, from 2006. The bagpipe band I was in at the time played for the Denver premier of the movie, so I remember it well. It follows the story of William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, and what he went through to end the practice of slavery in Britain, 50 years before it ended in the U.S. It shows the conditions of the slaves on the slave ships, the resistance Wilberforce encountered and the toll it took on his health. It also shows the influence of John Newton, a reformed slave ship captain, who wrote the title hymn. I tell Newton’s story in schools, and play the hymn on my bagpipe. It is the most requested tune for any piper, and it’s very easy to get tired of it (very!). But in this context, it takes on a different sort of energy, and I am happy to play it.

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