Slave Haven Underground Railroad and Civil Rights

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June 5th 2015
Published: June 6th 2015
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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 the butt of 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 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 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 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 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 the government resisted for so "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 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 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 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 today!

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 today!"

Stop a while...reflect...conflicts, discrimination and strife here and there.

And dream...and believe...the World CAN become a better place.

Relax & Enjoy,

Dancing Dave

Additional photos below
Photos: 42, Displayed: 29


6th June 2015

An accident of birth
It would be very confronting indeed, however necessary to visit it and remember this dark history...unfortunately we repeat ourselves. What a fascinating place to visit however.
6th June 2015

An accident of birth
Thanks for reading Rachael. Considering the biggest smiles, the biggest voices, the friendliest hearts, were from the Afro-American folk we met in Memphis...especially poignant...for them to share their stories with us.
6th June 2015

Nice description
I´d love to visit that museum, thanks for providing me with a good appetiser, great stuff and a lot to learn, Martin Luther King´s story is fascinating.
6th June 2015

a good appetiser, great stuff and a lot to learn
Well said Frank. Hard for me to say more than I've said at this time other than it has left me with a heavy heart...a very heavy heart.
6th June 2015 went there...
This blog is amazing David...digging the uncomfortable truth up - this comment stood out. Thank you Images that made me squirm...'cause 'twas obvious how fortunate I be born white.
6th June 2015 went there...
Thank you for commenting Cindy. Probably my most important blog...possibly my least popular! The Blues Highway is not just fabulous has a history that is impossible to ignore...a history that is an integral part of the integral part of the human fabric that you see and meet on the way.
7th June 2015

Shaken to the heart
I was touched beyond belief at both of these places. Slave Haven because we had wonderful soulful conversation with the volunteers & delighted at the wonderful inventiveness of the abolitionists in their fight for justice for another human being. The Civil Rights Museum for their interactive displays that put you in someone else's shoes for a moment which shook you to the heart...great blog David.
7th June 2015

Not our country's finest moments
Dangerous Dave here......your blog allowed others to glimpse a part of our county's past which is very painful to many people. With many shining moments in our history, this chapter was for lack of a better term...horrendous. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so others might better understand what occurred in the hopes this type of man's inhumanity to man will never occur again.
8th June 2015

Not our country's finest moments
Thank you for your candid comments Dave. I report on two must-see sites of Memphis that were both shocking and victorious. Slave Haven for the ingenuity of the black slaves and their codes, National Civil Rights Museum for the fight for civil rights that had to be fought. These stories have to be told and shared by blacks and whites alike and I share with you the in the hopes that by so doing this type of man's inhumanity to man will never occur again.
8th June 2015

Memphis, Tennessee
Great post...I can imagine how moving it must have been to visit these places. I have been fascinated by this part of the US for a long time.
8th June 2015

Memphis, Tennessee-Slave Haven & National Civil Rights Museum
Hi Ren. Moving, yes. Important to let fellow TBers know of these must-see sights, more so.
8th June 2015

Powerful words!
Racism is a scourge that needs to be eliminated from this world, it lays within each of us to treat everyone equally regardless of creed, sex and sexuality. It is within each of us to not be quiet when we see such things around us.
8th June 2015

Powerful words!
I agree with your powerful words Per-Olof that deserve to be repeated "Racism is a scourge that needs to be eliminated from this world, it lays within each of us to treat everyone equally regardless of creed, sex and sexuality. It is within each of us to not be quiet when we see such things around us." You have thus named the 'elephant in the room' which I neglected to name. I have reported on two must-see sites but the important stories these places convey go much much further than that.
9th June 2015

The suporters of slave owners still goes on....
Are you really here in Memphis- again? Please e-mail me so we can meet. I have been to the Civil Rights Museum several times ( but not since it was updated last year). But it is Slave Haven that I think really tells a more personal story. It is privately owned and sometimes the woman that owns it is there. Her daughters help her run the place. I took a group of Russians who were here visiting Memphis there and they were astounded by the honestly shown. The young girl who gave them there tour sang some of the spirituals and it was incredibly moving. I lived in Massachusetts for 64 years and only moved to Memphis several years ago so the reality of the history of the South stills shocks me. There is still a huge fight going on in Memphis between African - AM and some 'enlightened' folks and the ancestors of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the sons and daughters of the Confederacy. He was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan and his statue stands in a park on Union Avenue (love that irony). The park has been renamed but the good ol' boys are fighting to get it back to 'honor' the general who was quite a slaughterer. Thanks for the history lesson. Carolyn / Gunga
9th June 2015

The suporters of slave owners still goes on....
I am somewhat relieved to receive your comments Carolyn as only one other American has commented and to me that is of concern. This is probably my most important blog, yet to date the least popular. The silence is deafening, yet the subject so topical. If it was about the Killing Fields in Cambodia or a massacre in Africa or anywhere other than USA, the interest may be significantly greater. Yet those that have commented convey like concerned minds. Great you agree Slave Haven is worthwhile. I find the balance of your post disturbing and vital you have so advised. I am a firm believer that light shone in dark corners makes cockroaches scuttle. We saw the film "Welcome to Leith" yesterday about a small USA town versus white supremacists so there is hope for goodness to prevail in your country yet.
8th October 2017

I had a dream I would be free.
Absolutely amazing photo. Made me want to cry....
9th October 2017

I had a dream I would be free
A photo to fit the vibe of the blog. Sometimes we need an image that transcends the words. Thanks for commenting Dave and Issy.

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