I am embarrassed that Memphis has been a part of my life for so long, yet there is still so much I have to learn about her. I am embarrassed that half a mile from my neighborhood stands a home I had never before visited but is such an important part of the city’s history- of American history. When I shared these sentiments with our tour guide during a recent visit to the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum she told me not to worry; she hears these words often. Her response was sincere and soothing, two traits which would continue to envelop her as we walked through a home filled with remnants that reminded us of both some of the most egregious and most empathetic acts toward humanity we have ever seen.
She did not sugarcoat any portion of the historical timeline presented to us through images and artifacts displayed on the home’s walls, which detailed the transatlantic slave trade from its starting points in Africa to its eventual arrival here in Memphis. I kept glancing down at my nine year-old, wondering if it was too much for him to take in but he just listened as she spoke, stopping only once to say, “I feel sad and a little bit scared.” This phrase being but a minute reflection of how the children in the photos must have felt while being separated from their parents and sold as slaves to the highest bidders.
Before we learned about Jacob Burkle, the abolitionist who owned this home that was part of the Underground Railroad (and now houses the museum), we sat in a room surrounded by things that bared some of the worst our world has ever seen. As I looked around at tools whose sole purpose was to physically shatter even the strongest human beings, my emotions got the better of me. Then, her voice comforted me.
“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan, and what did I see coming for to carry me home? A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”
Our guide sang these words, so beautifully and consolingly, as we stared ahead at a painting that depicted the slaves’ souls as victors over their physical bondage. When she finished we quietly stood up from the wooden benches, mirroring those on which slaves sat and secretly learned to read, and were introduced to the work of a local businessman who would help “carry them home”.
Burkle, a German immigrant, owned a stockyard in Memphis, which had become “Tennessee’s largest slave-trading city.” The large Magnolia tree in the front yard of his home signified to those trying to escape slavery via the Underground Railroad that they’d reached a safe haven. He, as did so many other abolitionists, risked his life to help slaves to freedom. As we stood in the very space beneath his house where slaves waited until he could get them safely to the Mississippi River for transport north, no one in our tour group said a word. We stood in the darkness, hearing each other’s breaths, feeling each other’s presence. We admitted to being uncomfortable in the cold, bare cellar, the only light coming through a small hole through which slaves crawled to get inside. It was embarrassing for me to admit this discomfort because I knew, definitively, the light would soon be turned on again and we could walk up the stairs to our collective freedom. For the slaves who stood in this cellar, there was no knowing if it would be days or weeks before they saw light and no knowing if it would guide them to their freedom. All they could do was wait.
“There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved. God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.” Psalms 46:4-5
Alongside a city marred by the pain and injustices of slavery ran a river whose streams made glad the city of God by carrying His beloved to freedom. On its banks lived Burkle whom, I could speculate, believed that God was in the midst of it all as he moved these beloved, often just at the break of dawn, to Memphis-docked boats waiting to cross their Jordan; to a land where they weren’t in bondage anymore.
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