The Persistence of Folklore

On the eve of a publicly funded renovation, the Burkle Estate still offers more historical questions than answers.

Story by James Busbee - Photos by Trey Harrison

ld South legends die hard. Every town from Virginia to Louisiana has its own antebellum tale. Sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic, sometimes even supernatural, most are still passed along through an oral tradition that can obscure, distort, enhance -- or, in some cases, preserve -- tales from decades long past. Stories have circulated around Memphis for years about the Burkle Estate, a house near the Mississippi River which, prior to the Civil War, may have served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves make their way north to freedom.

Also known as "Slave Haven," the Burkle Estate is a collision of historical fact and folklore. The house is a classic example of an ongoing debate among historians -- just how much fact can be gleaned from oral histories? In the coming weeks, as the Burkle Estate undergoes a substantial renovation in preparation for a full-scale opening, the questions of the value of folklore versus the strength of fact will only increase.

Oddly, the lack of primary evidence to document the house's secrets serves to bolster both camps' arguments -- some say that no remaining evidence of an Underground Railroad simply means that nothing happened at the house, while proponents of the legend say the lack of extant information is unsurprising for an operation where the penalty for discovery was a swift death.

THE FIRST TIME I VISITED THE Burkle Estate, I unwittingly drove right past it. After all, "estate" in the Southern tradition implies a majestic expanse of land, and the house's address is right in the middle of a blighted industrial district in North Memphis. After a slower pass along the street, only the Tennessee Historical Society marker in the front yard indicated I was in the right place. The "estate" is a one-story white frame house, now badly in need of repair on a lot strewn with broken glass and dead magnolia leaves.

In recent years, the Burkle Estate has taken on a second -- or perhaps third -- life, this time as a museum for slave history. Still in development, the museum is operated by a newly established nonprofit organization. The house is a key stop on tours conducted by Heritage Tours Inc., a Memphis African-American history foundation. The exhibits of the museum are powerful, fundamentally disturbing evidence of the horrors of slavery. And the subsequent firsthand experience of an Underground Railroad way station makes for a fascinating slice of history -- if it's the truth.

JACOB BURKLE, MASTER OF THE Burkle Estate, is something of a cipher in Memphis history. According to the few records available, he was part of a wave of German immigrants who came to America in the mid-19th century fleeing conscription into Bismarck's military. In Memphis, Burkle was a moderately prosperous owner of a stockyard and bakery north of downtown. The house, built in 1849, overlooked the stockyards and the Mississippi River three blocks away. The brick building which once housed the bakery still stands, abandoned, next door to the estate. The letters "BURKL" are faintly visible on the building's north face; the rest has faded away.

The estate once occupied the north edge of the Gayoso Bayou, which separated it from then-downtown Memphis. Since then, the creep of industry has drained away the bayou and paved wide streets past Burkle's door. The Burkle Estate, at 826 North Second Street, now shares a road with shuttered drugstores, fading Coca-Cola signs, and litter-filled vacant lots, all within sight of The Pyramid. The shade of three enormous magnolia trees blankets the estate.

The Burkle Estate is owned by Helene Shorty of Wheatley, Arkansas, and managed by a nonprofit organization, Slave Haven/Underground Railroad. The organization shares members with Heritage Tours, which offers tours of important sites in Memphis' African-American history. Heritage is run by two sisters, Elaine Turner and Joan Nelson, who have plenty of firsthand experience in the civil-rights struggle, including participation in several sit-ins and subsequent arrests.

Elaine Turner greets me at the house on a brilliant blue morning. Even from the street, it's obvious that the years have not been kind to Burkle's home. The white paint of the estate has peeled and faded to a dull gray, the porch boards have sagged and separated, cracks run the length of the columns in front. The tiny lot in front of the house is patched with scrubby grass, and the sidewalk has cracked and buckled, pushed up by the roots of the magnolias.

Last year, the Memphis City Council supplied a $100,000 grant for a restoration of the house. Slave Haven/Underground Railroad will use the money for electricity, security, and structural renovations -- necessities for making the estate into what Turner hopes will someday be one of the most popular tourist stops in Memphis. Within weeks, renovation work is expected to begin, and by late spring, Turner hopes the museum will be self-sufficient and open to the public on a regular schedule. Currently, the house is available for tours by appointment only.

"We want this part of history to be known," Turner says, kicking aside a brick that holds the house's screen door shut. "It's important for people to have an understanding of what was involved in the slave trade, and in the system of slavery, to understand the human tragedies that occurred."

Inside, there's a chill held in by the heavy drawn curtains. A central hall runs the length of the house, and rooms split off to both sides. In the hall and one front room are relics of the slave trade, used to put the house in perspective and demonstrate why slaves would sacrifice everything for freedom.

Along the dark pine walls, gaunt slaves stare blank-eyed from monochrome portraits. A photograph of a black man with a whip-serrated back hangs next to a whip itself. A 9-foot-long sack, which cotton harvesters would fill three or four times daily, lies draped over a church pew in a front room.

The most potent and disturbing exhibits in the front hall are the chillingly mundane slave-trader advertisements. "Negroes wanted!" one reads. "We wish to buy one hundred good negroes for the Southern market by the first of October." In the years before the Civil War, Memphis was the largest slave market in the Mid-South. A dozen slave traders, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, advertised regularly in local newspapers.

WE LEAVE THE ESTATE'S CENTRAL HALL and begin walking through the bedrooms and kitchen, now redecorated with period antiques. Talk turns to the house's master. What would possess a man to defy his time and put everything he had at risk? "A precious few European Americans saw that [slavery] was an unjust system and a sin against God," Turner says, "and took it upon themselves to be agents for freedom."

The stakes for Burkle himself were the highest imaginable. "Had Jacob Burkle been discovered, he would have been lynched -- no question," Turner says. "There were plenty of known abolitionists in the North, but you wouldn't be a known abolitionist in the South for very long. As soon as they took you to the nearest tree, it would be all over."

When the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed, matters became even more difficult for runaway slaves. The law permitted slave hunters to recapture fleeing slaves in Northern "free" states. Most slaves thus sought to reach Canada, where no such law existed.

Historians contend that the Underground Railroad was primarily an Eastern phenomenon, but as with many aspects of the Burkle Estate, Turner points out that just because no evidence exists of an event doesn't mean it didn't happen. The Burkle Estate isn't the only place in the South where legends of the Underground Railroad are all that remain.

In truth, the Underground Railroad was misnamed on both counts. "Underground" was a descriptive designation rather than a physical one; most of the way stations along the Underground Railroad were barns, attics, cellars, or caves. Although some slaves moved north by rail, many more stowed away on steamboats, rode in carts, or simply walked to freedom. There was, of course, no railroad that ran beneath the ground, ferrying slaves to freedom; even had the technology for construction existed in the 19th century, such a project could hardly remain a closely guarded secret.

In the years after Jacob Burkle lived in the house, the Underground Railroad story became a local legend. To date, Turner and other researchers have not uncovered any primary evidence of the house's secret history. The only known documents which could have corroborated the legends were apparently burned by Burkle's great-granddaughter.

Nonetheless, "we feel very confident that this was a way station on the Underground Railroad," Turner says. The circumstantial evidence is present. To begin with, the house was in an ideal location for secretive acts. The bayou that existed in Burkle's time prevented any direct overland travel from downtown Memphis; the house could only be approached by taking roads far east and looping back toward the river. Between the house and the river was only a thick stand of trees.

Just as Memphis was a crossroads for slaves coming in, so too could it have been a center for runaways on the way out. In the estate's central hall hangs a map detailing the routes of the Underground Railroad. The routes' thicknesses are relative to the number of slaves who followed those routes. The thickest of all runs right through Memphis. These slaves had to take shelter somewhere, and the estate's proximity to the river made it ideal for such subterfuge.

It is the river which Turner believes served as the escape route for the slaves. There was no electricity at the time, meaning that the steamboats would have been shrouded in darkness at night. Assuming someone in charge on the steamboats was aware of the arrangements, slaves could be smuggled onto the boats in any number of ways, possibly even inside cotton bales or barrels.

In recent years, circumstantial evidence from two different sources also hinted at the house's secret history. In the late 1980s, Otis Johnson Jr., an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, researched property he owns in the area. He noted that neighbors all around the house told similar stories about the Burkle Estate's role in the Underground Railroad.

In addition, Bill Day, now the owner of the historic Hunt-Phelan Home on Beale Street, says he actually crawled in the crannies beneath the Burkle Estate when they were still accessible. Day was tutored as a child by Burkle's now-deceased granddaughter, Katherine Compton.

She told him of the stories about the house, and Day took it upon himself to seek out the tunnels. "I crawled underneath the house and came back out covered in dust," he recalls. "I got a good whipping, because Katherine knew immediately what I'd done."

But Katherine Compton apparently had more than just stories. She once showed Day a decades-old letter from an escaped slave thanking Burkle for his aid. Years later, Compton's daughter burned the letter and similar documents, and with them the last primary evidence of the house's secrets. "There's no record of the Underground Railroad there except for my memories as a kid," Day says. And therein lies the controversy surrounding Slave Haven.

NO ONE HAS STATED PUBLICLY that the house was not a stop on the Underground Railroad, but the lack of primary evidence is enough to provide doubts for many. Though he heard the legends of the house firsthand, Johnson, for one, cautions against being too enthusiastic. "The only people that could tell us for sure whether the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad aren't with us anymore," Johnson says.

A serious question regarding the Burkle Estate is whether its curators have an ethical obligation to point out that there is no primary evidence to support the legends. Last summer, an article in The Wall Street Journal took the Hunt-Phelan Home to task for passing off oral legends of dubious authenticity as historical fact. The possibility is there for a similar blurring between fact and legend at the Burkle Estate.

"I have no problems with how the story of Jacob Burkle passed down through history," Turner says. "In the African-American community, that's the way history was transmitted. The fact that there's no particular written evidence [about harboring slaves] means Jacob Burkle did a good job of covering his tracks."

Some historians aren't satisfied with that explanation. "I'm always cautious about legends," says Dr. Charles Crawford, a history professor at the University of Memphis. "I don't discount folklore -- it's a part of our heritage. But as a historian, I am more concerned with accurate historical records." The Tennessee Historical Society marker outside the house reads, "Folklore persists, however, that the estate was also a haven for slaves escaping to freedom on the underground railroad."

The Memphis Convention and Visitors' Bureau, while endorsing the Burkle Estate as a tourist stop, does include the caveat that the site's status is, for all the stories, still a matter of conjecture. "We definitely refer people to the Burkle Estate and Heritage Tours, particularly those who ask about the Underground Railroad," says Kimmie McNeil Vaulx, communications manager at the CVB. "But we never say that it definitely is part of the Underground Railroad."

MY TOUR OF THE BURKLE ESTATE finishes up in the cellar. In an alcove off Jacob Burkle's parlor, Turner hands me a bright yellow industrial flashlight and pulls up a thick wooden door. She descends the staircase into the darkness. When she's down, she turns and shines her light on the gray, chipped wooden stairs ahead of me.

The cellar's ceiling is low, less than 6 feet, and the entire space is perhaps the size of a large elevator car. Traces of light edge in around the baseboards of the house. There's a chill in the bricks down here that the sun can't reach.

I shine my flashlight around the corners of the basement. All looks normal, for a dank cellar not far from the river. "At first, we weren't sure there was anything different about this cellar," Turner says. "But the more we looked, the more we started to see things that didn't fit. Look here --" she shines her light on a three-step brick staircase that runs straight into a wall of the cellar. "Why would someone build a staircase into a wall? Simple. The wall wasn't there before."

There are holes in the brickwork at ceiling level that look through to the underside of the house. Turner shines her light into the corner near the brick staircase, and asks me to see what's different about that corner. I find one seam in the brickwork. She points out loose bricks at ceiling level, shows me another seam, and the frame of a now-bricked-up archway seems to rise out of the brick wall.

Whatever routes ran to the river would have reached from this cellar. When the time was right to send out slaves, according to legend, Burkle would leave a sack of gold on a fencepost at the river, and riverboat captains would pick up the runaways for northern passage. Turner believes most slaves from the Burkle Estate went directly to Canada by way of Cairo, Illinois. There is no corresponding riverside exit currently visible; a century and a half of development has reshaped the riverbank since Burkle's time.

In this cellar, I can see how the folklore takes on such power. Fifteen slaves could have hid in Burkle's cellar at any one time. To a slave, spending time here would have been excruciating. Sunlight is plainly visible just a few feet away. Sounds from the outside filter through easily. Someone down here couldn't help but hear the Burkle family moving around freely upstairs. To be so close to freedom and still have so far to go is almost incomprehensible.

IF THERE WERE SLAVES WHO EScaped north via Slave Haven, there are ample hiding places within and beneath the house itself. It's their route from the house to the river that remains the most problematic. The widely circulated presumption that tunnels led from the Burkle Estate to the river is off the mark, according to several sources.

Guy Weaver, an archaeologist with Brockington and Associates, conducted a recent archaeological survey of the site prior to the renovation work. The survey debunked some of the aspects of the house's legend -- for example, the mysterious "stairs leading to nowhere" were actually a remnant of an earlier stage of the house's construction, and at one point led directly from the cellar to the outside. More importantly, the archaeological survey found no tunnels.

"There's no evidence of tunnels under the house," Weaver says. "You hear stories about tunnels running under the streets, but usually these turn out to be sewer lines or foundation vaults."

However, that doesn't mean tunneling would be impossible. Although it would seem that carving a tunnel so close to the Mississippi River would be absurd, if not futile, in fact such tunnels would be possible. Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Memphis, notes that the soil makeup around the house is a type of silty clay called loess. "Loess is an excellent tunneling substance," Anderson says. "You could dig a tunnel with relatively few supports that could run right down to the edge of the river." The Corps made the discovery about the soil content some years back, when surveying was done for the on-ramps to the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge near the Burkle Estate.

On the other hand, digging produces dirt. Maps from 1860 indicate that the Wolf River was 1,500 feet from the Burkle Estate. (Mud Island actually separates the Wolf from the Mississippi at that point.) An excavation project extending so far would have produced hundreds of cubic yards of dirt, which Burkle would have had difficulty hiding.

There may be another answer, however. Turner believes that a natural trench ran from the south side of the house to the river, and that Burkle bricked over the trench. Perhaps he was just leveling the ground, but he also may have created a de facto tunnel to the river. The archaeological survey didn't investigate that possibility, because that route lies on what is now another house's property. Interestingly, that house's driveway appears to have buckled inward where that route would run. It could be worthwhile to consider that the archaeological survey did find that Burkle's entire backyard was paved with bricks, indicating Jacob Burkle may have had some aptitude at masonry.

The Burkle Estate still offers more questions than answers. Quite simply, there is sufficient compelling evidence -- or lack thereof -- to support several theories on the house's secrets. Regardless of its history, the Burkle Estate now accurately replicates the living conditions of slaves on the run, and one can't spend time in the house without gaining a fuller understanding of slaves' plight. The truth about the house, finally, may matter less than its effect upon those who visit. Reading about runaway slaves is one thing; kneeling on the cramped, brick-floor cellar they may have hidden in is quite another. n (Tours of the Burkle Estate are available by appointment. A $5 donation is suggested. Contact Heritage Tours at 527-3427.)

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