Slave Haven Underground Railroad and Civil Rights.
We came to Memphis to find the blues...we're soaking in it now.
But we discovered something that wrenched our hearts...made us stand up and take notice...made us reflect and reflect again.
And thank God this didn't happen to us.
I'm talking about slavery...that blight on the history of race relations...white versus black.
Then when slavery was abolished...the fight for civil rights...the continuation of white versus black.
But first a bit of history...of Memphis that is.
Memphis was founded as a Mississippi River port in about 1819 with grandiose visions...presumably why it was named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile.
It served as a port for cotton growing on the river deltas around there.
And where there was cotton...there was labour...human labour.
And that meant slaves...poor wretches that were captured from Africa...transported in chains to work on plantations and farms in the Americas...bartered and sold as chattels...not regarded as human...'cause they were black.
About one million slaves were transported from southern USA to Memphis in the 19th century to work in this developing cotton area...and the plantation
owners grew rich from the toils of their black backs.
They probably came by steamboat to Memphis...the largest slave market in Tennessee.
From 1857 a railway was built connecting Memphis to Charleston on the Atlantic coast further increasing its trading prosperity.
By 1860 it is said 23.2% of the population of Memphis were Irish when the population was 23,623.
Ironic that Irish were white but also discriminated against...probably because they were Catholic!
Then there was an influx of Germans...teaming up with the Irish to make this Protestant city mainly Catholic.
In those 1860 figures 3,000 were black...but I question that as seems pretty obvious to me that blacks if they were slaves were not included in the count...using a pun...cause they simply didn't count.
In June 1861 Tennessee seceded from the Union and became a Confederate state.
But in June 1862 Union ironclad gunboats sailed down the Mississippi and the city fell to the Union in the Battle of Memphis and remained under Union control for the duration of the Civil War.
But what happened to the slaves you ask?
As the Union army was there many blacks escaped from
plantations and sought protection behind Union lines so that within 5 years their numbers were said to be 20,000 and the Union army set up "contraband" camps to accommodate them.
During the Civil War, escaped slaves were regarded as "contraband of war"...a term used for confiscated chattels or goods...and while not classified as free they were not returned to their slave owners as required under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but worked as labourers or even "coloured soldiers" in the Union army ultimately receiving low wages.
The Confiscation Act of 1861 allowed all property used by the Confederate Army to be confiscated which included slaves, thus further confirming their non return to their owners and the 1862 Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves forbade returning slaves to Confederate masters.
By the end of the Civil War in April 1865 there were about 10,000 blacks in contraband camps across the country so as black numbers were in the millions, free they were not.
And throughout the country there were laws forbidding education to blacks, so equal they continued to be not.
In May 1866 over 3 days of the Memphis Riot white mobs killed 46
blacks, wounding 75 and injuring 100, raped several women, and destroyed nearly 100 houses while severely damaging churches and schools in South Memphis. Two whites were killed.
One of many white versus black riots that continued into and throughout the 20th Century.
In the 1870s a yellow fever epidemic hit Memphis and about 20,000 people fled the city leaving the poor behind, many of whom were black as only the better off had the financial capacity to relocate. About 5,000 people died in Memphis from the epidemic.
Although it was one of the largest cities in the south it relied on the river for sewerage disposal so malaria and cholera also wiped out more populous and its reputation was of a dirty low socio-economic city where only the poor blacks and whites remained.
Yet Memphis in later years cleaned up its act and became a leader in sanitation.
It became the leader in cotton and lumbar markets, its population grew and prospered to be the jewel it is today.
But civil rights continued as a substantial blemish on its attempts to portray it had cleaned up its act, as it did throughout USA.
After the abolition of slavery the Fifteenth Amendment to the USA Constitution in 1870 prohibited the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, colour or previous condition of servitude."
But various laws requiring poll taxes (taxes to be paid to register to vote), literacy tests and the "grandfather clause" whereby you were exempt from the tax if your
ancestor had the right to vote before the Civil War effectively disenfranchised blacks from voting in Tennessee until civil rights legislation in 1966!!!
You can read and live the history of white versus black in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis...voted as USA's third most popular attraction.
Slave Haven, the Burkle Estate
At 826 North Second Street, Memphis is a house built in 1849 and then owned by Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant who owned some slaves.
But this house was not what it seemed.
We visited it and learnt of its history...its history as a refuge for escaping slaves...a way station on their attempts to reach Canada and freedom...a station in what was known as the Underground Railroad.
Underground meaning need for secrecy.
It is now known as Slave Haven.
And a dangerous haven it was indeed.
He owned slaves so he'd appear like other land owners, so as not to attract attention, as these were dangerous times.
Being opposed to slavery he was an abolitionist...and among white folk in these parts...he was in the minority.
As whites, we found Slave Haven very confronting.
Black Afro-Americans were explaining to us how blacks were treated throughout the slavery periods and beyond.
There were heaps of 20th Century posters on show depicting them as non-human...as monkeys...as the butt of jokes...how watermelons were food for livestock and blacks...subtleties in these images and their captions that promoted inequality.
Images that made me squirm...'cause 'twas obvious how fortunate I am...to be born white.
And considering the setting...I was glad I was not from USA...couldn't be gladder they knew we were from Oz.
The rest of the visitors at the time of our visit were black and we were shown around in a group and even had a lecture together.
This was fascinating.
We were told how this house had three
non indigenous trees out front that was a sign to escaped slaves that it was a safe haven, how blankets on the clothes line had secret codes in the stitching, how songs such as Amazing Grace and Swing Low Sweet Chariot and even beats in songs contained codes directing slaves where to go...how slaves would feel what side of trees had thicker bark to assist them determining which way was north while travelling through forests at night...and that if caught slaves were returned to slave owners notwithstanding legislative steps to not provide so.
We went into the cellar...shown how they crawled in and out...imagining what it could have been like...being on the run...knowing freedom was a dream...not a right.
We were not allowed to photograph inside but I wanted to photograph the three trees when we came out.
But a black girl down on her luck was begging for money from us outside...not game to bring out my camera...so I gave her a twenty and we got out of there...the girl highlighting the misery that we had been learning about inside. The Civil Rights Museum
Martin Luther King was one of the greatest
orators in history in my opinion...his speeches I compare with Winston Churchill.
Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis...while on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel...so kinda appropriate that the Civil Rights Museum was built on the site...kinda a must visit when visiting Memphis...searching for equality...searching for the blues.
How black children demanded education...how the government resisted for so long...how "equality but separate" kept blacks and whites segregated in society...separate washbasins, separate schools, separate buses, separate in mind and soul...all due to hatred or intolerance guided by the colour of one's skin.
And how some brave souls said enough is enough...and fought for equality...preferring peaceful demonstration but willing to die if necessary...to be respected as fellow citizens of the nation that called itself the greatest nation on earth.
The museum takes you on the journeys...the paths trodden and where they were trodden on...through history seeking civil rights...to achieve what to their slave forefathers was only a dream. I have a dream
On 28 August 1963 Martin Luther King declared to all he had a dream.
And on 4 April 1968 he was gunned down...assassinated for it.
But like a
phoenix his dream rose and became reality...a reality that is still often tested it seems...but when he said these words about 50 years ago...it was only a dream.
"And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content
of their character.
I have a dream
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream
Stop a while...reflect...conflicts, discrimination and strife here and there.
And dream...and believe...the World CAN become a better place.
Relax & Enjoy,
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