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The Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, and Burkle Estate

Updated on September 14, 2017
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Robert Odell, Jr. enjoys sharing the rich history and culture of Memphis, Tennessee where he has lived and worked for several years.

What Was the Underground Railroad?

According to Professor Eric Foner of Columbia University, the Underground Railroad, which consisted of groups of black and white anti-slavery activists, was instrumental in helping many American slaves escape to freedom. Local groups assisted fugitive slaves. The groups were in communication with each other so that fugitives could be sent from one group to the other.

Burkle Estate in Memphis was reportedly a haven used to help slaves escape to freedom via the underground railroad network.

Members of the Burkle Theatre and Arts Group from the University of Memphis:  from left, Jeneka Wise, Allyson Truly, Tristan Parks, and Charisse Norments 02/16/12
Members of the Burkle Theatre and Arts Group from the University of Memphis: from left, Jeneka Wise, Allyson Truly, Tristan Parks, and Charisse Norments 02/16/12 | Source

Slave Haven in Memphis

The Burkle Estate located at 826 N. 2nd Street in Memphis, Tennessee has an historical marker that explains what happened at the home before the American Civil War. According to the marker, the Burkle Estate was the site were "folklore persists … was also a haven for slaves escaping to freedom on the underground railroad."

Not far from the banks of the Mississippi River, the estate became a secret refuge for runaways as they were led to liberty.

Slavery in America was a factor that led to the formation of the Underground Railroad and a civil war that split the young nation apart.

The Burkle Estate was near the banks of the Mississippi River and was an excellent stop for escapees as they fled to the freedom of the North.
The Burkle Estate was near the banks of the Mississippi River and was an excellent stop for escapees as they fled to the freedom of the North. | Source
A marker826 N. Second St., Memphis, TN 38107 -
826 North 2nd Street, Memphis, TN 38107, USA
get directions

Also known as "Slave Haven," the Burkle Estate in Memphis, Tennessee (TN) tells the story of the human quest for freedom.

Slavery in America

According to “official historical records” slavery was first introduced to America in 1619 when "The White Lion," a badly damaged Dutch slave ship carrying twenty kidnapped Africans, arrived on the shore of the fledgling Virginia Colony. The Africans became a cheap labor source for work in tobacco, rice and cotton fields. As the economy began to improve and prosper, colonist became unwilling to let their free labor source go. As a result, slavery took root and flourished.

According to official historical records, slavery was first introduced to America in 1619 when "The White Lion," a badly damaged Dutch slave ship, arrived on the shore of the Virginia Colony on the Chesapeake Bay.
According to official historical records, slavery was first introduced to America in 1619 when "The White Lion," a badly damaged Dutch slave ship, arrived on the shore of the Virginia Colony on the Chesapeake Bay. | Source

Black Gold

Slavery was legalized by the colonies in 1641. Africans became chattel; personal property that could be owned for life. Cheap slave labor became so prosperous that captured Africans were referred to as "black gold." In 1660 King Charles II of England formed The Royal African Company in order to transport "black gold" from Africa to the Americas.

In 1660 King Charles II of England formed The Royal African Company in order to transport slaves, referred to as "black gold," from Africa to the Americas.
In 1660 King Charles II of England formed The Royal African Company in order to transport slaves, referred to as "black gold," from Africa to the Americas. | Source
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By 1860 one-million humans were moved from East to the South and sold as slaves. Slaves were treated like chattel and herded along like animals.On transport to the deep South, slaves were packed into pens, yards and slave houses.  Slave owners were fined if they did not punish recaptured slaves that had tried to escape.
By 1860 one-million humans were moved from East to the South and sold as slaves. Slaves were treated like chattel and herded along like animals.
By 1860 one-million humans were moved from East to the South and sold as slaves. Slaves were treated like chattel and herded along like animals. | Source
On transport to the deep South, slaves were packed into pens, yards and slave houses.  Slave owners were fined if they did not punish recaptured slaves that had tried to escape.
On transport to the deep South, slaves were packed into pens, yards and slave houses. Slave owners were fined if they did not punish recaptured slaves that had tried to escape. | Source

Slaves Desired to Be Free

By 1775 African-American slavery had become a major part of the lifestyle in the South. After the American Revolution the Northern States began to gradually extend the hand of freedom to African-Americans. However; slavery in the deep South remained firmly intact.

By the time of Harriet Tubman's birth in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1820, the North and South had agreed upon the Missouri Compromise. That compromise established the Mason and Dixon Line. North of that line there was to be no slavery. Also; by 1820, there were over 1.5 million slaves in America.

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The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line.  There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line.The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line.  There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line.The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line.  There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line.  There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line. There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line. | Source
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line.  There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line. There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line. | Source
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line.  There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the Mason Dixon Line. There was no slavery in the states North of the Mason Dixon Line. | Source

America Internalized Slavery

In 1807 England outlawed it's slave trade. Harboring an unquenchable thirst for rock-bottom labor; America no longer needed transports from England. The new nation had mastered the process of generating its own internal slave trade.

By 1860 one-million humans were moved, across the United States, from the East to the South and sold as slaves. Slaves were treated like chattel and herded along like animals. Packed into pens, yards and slave houses, the captives were often feed in troughs like common livestock. Slave owners were fined if they did not punish recaptured slaves that had tried to escape.

Feelings of Anixety

Southern whites grew anxious of the increasing slave population. As the slave population increased so did the harshness and rigor of their bondage. It is because of this that many slaves had anxious desires for freedom. It may be such anxiety that caused Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831. Young Harriet Tubman, eleven years old at the time, may have listened intently to others as they talked about what happened.

A Five Foot Heroine

Originally named Araminta Harriet Ross; Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave, grew to became a famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. Having escaped slavery herself; Harriet was inspired to daringly return to her former place of bondage, time after time, to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom.

Harriet Tubman, who stood about five feet tall, escaped form slavery to become a leading abolitionist.  She returned to the South several times and helped more than 300 slaves escape.
Harriet Tubman, who stood about five feet tall, escaped form slavery to become a leading abolitionist. She returned to the South several times and helped more than 300 slaves escape. | Source

Harriet Tubman

The book Harriet Tubman by Earl Conrad seems to capture the essence of the slaves' desire for freedom. Conrad begins by introducing the reader to some of the pitfalls of slavery. He sprinkles each chapter of the biography with historical events without sounding trite or boring. As Harriet Tubman is introduced by Conrad he produces a mental image of her. An example of this is when Harriet is described while she is a teenager, "...her mouth was large and the cast of it was loose, with lips everted. Her eyes were heavy-lidded and appraising. A round, receding chin was set, rock-like; and her hair was short and crinkly. By now too she was almost as tall as she ever would be, which was about five feet; and her limbs had become strong" (Conrad, p.21).

Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in the South to become a leading abolitionist. She returned to the South several times and helped more than 300 slaves escape. She was highly revered by John Brown, a white abolitionist whose actions helped to hasten the war that later brought emancipation. Tubman was dubbed as a heroine because of her heroics in Troy, New York and service during the Civil War.

Because she was black, a woman, and had no formal education, Harriet Tubman's accomplishments took on almost legendary proportions. "Harriet pioneered for her sex as well as for the Negro nation" (Conrad, p.128). Tubman's remarkable and heroic feats were accomplished mainly via the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad Operated in Secret

The Underground Railroad consisted of groups of black and white anti-slavery activists in the United States that helped escaped slaves to reach places of safety in the North or Canada. The groups operated in secret.

Railway terms were used to describe the way the groups in the Underground Railroad operated. The routes were called lines. The stopping places were called stations. Conductors were those who helped along the way. The people being helped to escape were known as packages or freight.

The Underground Railroad consisted of groups of black and white anti-slavery activists in the United States that helped escaped slaves to reach places of safety in the North or Canada. The groups operated in secret.

The Underground Railroad consisted of groups of black and white anti-slavery activists that helped escaped slaves to reach places of safety in the North or Canada.
The Underground Railroad consisted of groups of black and white anti-slavery activists that helped escaped slaves to reach places of safety in the North or Canada. | Source

Underground Railroad Terms

Term
Meaning
Lines
Routes
Stations
Stopping Places
Conductors
Helpers Along The Way
Packages / Freight
The People Being Helped
Railway terms were used to describe the way the groups in the Underground Railroad operated.
Source

General Tubman

Harriet Tubman was an energetic and avid conductor. With the prowess of a military general, Tubman often forced the weary and faint hearted ahead by pointing a loaded revolver at their heads. She would tell them that they would have to escape or die.

John Brown referred to Harriet Tubman as "General." "'When he first set eyes on her he said, 'The first I see is General Tubman, the second is General Tubman, and the third is General Tubman'" (Conrad, p.114). In his letters John Brown refers to Harriet as, "...one of the best and bravest persons on this continent-General Tubman as we call her."

This painting depicts how Harriet Tubman, "General," often used a revolver to force the faint hearted, runaway slaves to not give up on their quest for freedom.
This painting depicts how Harriet Tubman, "General," often used a revolver to force the faint hearted, runaway slaves to not give up on their quest for freedom. | Source

Passion for Freedom

Harriet's deep passion for freedom was sparked in 1849 when she saw two of her sisters sold into slavery in the deep South. Harriet had heard horror stories of slavery in the deep South and detested the thought of having to go there. Harriet and two of her brothers fled. However; out of fear of discovery, they decided to turn back and, despite her objections, brought back Harriet also.

A few nights later, Harriet found out that she and her brothers were to be sold to another plantation. The thought of going into slavery in the deep South caused Harriet's burning desire for freedom to become a roaring inferno. Harriet decided to escape alone.

Through determination, resourcefulness, and the help of white and black friends, Harriet crossed the line to freedom. Harriet's desire for freedom can best be explained by her own thoughts: "'There's two things I've got a right to and these are death or liberty. One or the other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive; I shall fight for my liberty, and when the time has come for me to go, the Lord will let them kill me'" (Conrad, p.36).

What Do You Think?

What do you think was a major cause of the American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – April 9, 1865)?

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The Moses of Her People

Harriet Tubman made so many trips back to the South leading slaves to freedom, via the Underground Railroad, that she was referred to as the "Moses of her people" by abolitionists and the slaves she helped to escape.
Harriet Tubman made so many trips back to the South leading slaves to freedom, via the Underground Railroad, that she was referred to as the "Moses of her people" by abolitionists and the slaves she helped to escape. | Source

In 1850; after escaping from slavery, Harriet returned to her place of birth in Maryland to guide members of her family back to freedom. Harriet's niece and her niece's two children were among the first in that group. Later, Harriet made so many trips back to the South leading slaves to freedom, via the Underground Railroad, that she was referred to as the "Moses of her people" by abolitionists and the slaves she helped to escape. In the autumn of 1851, Harriet went back to see her husband John Tubman, a free black. Upon her return she found he had remarried. Harriet left him but kept his name.

When in 1833, Queen Victoria proclaimed free all the blacks on Canadian soil, Canada became a virtual promised land for fugitive slaves. Harriet and a party of eleven escaped to St. Catharines, Canada in 1851. Harriet then lived there for six or seven years. Between 1851-1857, Harriet had utilized the Underground Railroad network to make eleven or more trips to the South in order to help slaves escape to freedom. She rescued her brothers and later even led her parents to freedom. It has been estimated that over 50,000 slaves fled from the South into the Northern free states and Canada. Out of those numbers Harriet helped over 300 slaves to win their freedom.

The underground, railroad terminal that Harriet Tubman so skillfully navigated had a way station in Memphis, Tennessee.

Source

Memphis' Burkle Estate Was an Underground Railroad Station

Jacob Burkle was a German immigrant living in Memphis, Tennessee in the mid-1800's. He became a part of the anti-slavery movement. In an effort to help escaping slaves; Burkle would often risk his life in order to harbor the runaways in his residence, which became known as Burkle Estate. Burkle secretly helped fleeing slaves on their journey to freedom by operating an Underground Railroad way station at his home and stockyard.

Jacob Burkle was a German immigrant living in Memphis, Tennessee in the mid-1800's who became a part of the anti-slavery movement.
Jacob Burkle was a German immigrant living in Memphis, Tennessee in the mid-1800's who became a part of the anti-slavery movement. | Source

Located on the outskirts of Memphis from around 1855 until the abolition of slavery, Jacob Burkle's home became an unsuspecting refuge for escaping slaves. The Burkle Estate was near the banks of the Mississippi River and was an excellent stop for escapees as they fled to the freedom of the North.

Located on the outskirts of Memphis from around 1855 until the abolition of slavery, Jacob Burkle's home became an unsuspecting refuge for escaping slaves.
Located on the outskirts of Memphis from around 1855 until the abolition of slavery, Jacob Burkle's home became an unsuspecting refuge for escaping slaves. | Source

Three of the Many Factors to Freedom

The Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, and The Burkle Estate in Memphis, Tennessee were three of the many factors that helped hundreds of Pre-Civil War Americans transcend from slavery to freedom.

Conrad, Earl. Harriet Tubman. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

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