The Burkle Estate
October 8, 2014
By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian
Not all Memphians are familiar with the Slave Haven museum at the Burkle Estate in downtown at 826 North Second Street. Jacob Burkle, who is buried at Elmwood in the Chapel Hill section, was a German immigrant from Schemeden. He fled to America seeking a freer way of life after the failed German Revolution of 1848-9. Burkle owned the city’s first stockyard. The house at the Burkle Estate was built in the 1850s, overlooking his stockyards. Today his house is a museum featuring portraits of slaves and slave trading advertisements that aims to teach visitors about the atrocity of slavery and the secret world of the Underground Railroad.
According to local legend, the house was a stop along the Underground Railroad. Some historians debate that there is truth behind the legend, but both sides will argue that the lack of primary evidence supports their argument. The lack of evidence could mean that it never was a stop along the Underground Railroad, but it would be unsurprising for there to be no remaining evidence since it would have been a very secretive operation which could get someone killed if discovered. Supposedly, the only documents which could have verified the legend were burned by Burkle’s great granddaughter.
It is believed, by some, that the cellar beneath the house, accessible through the parlor, was used as a place to hide slaves. The estate is only three blocks from the Mississippi River and according to legend there was a tunnel to the river which has since been blocked off. An archaeological survey found no evidence of a tunnel, but engineers say that a tunnel would have been possible in the type of soil found at the estate. One possibility is that there was a naturally occurring trench from the house to the river that Jacob Burkle bricked over forming a tunnel which is no longer visible.
Whether the Burkle Estate actually served as a safe house for escaped slaves or not, the Safe Haven museum teaches a lasting lesson about slavery in this country. Though it is likely we will never know the truth about the Burkle Estate, the folklore will live on.