Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum: #1 Must-Do Memphis

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a sign stating "Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum" in front of a small humble house with covered windows

I visited Memphis, Tennessee as part of a two-month long road-trip, but while I was planning it all out, I didn’t really know anything about Memphis. Literally NOTHING. I know I know, blame it on the public school system. So when I finally arrived in Memphis after about 1.5 weeks in the Deep South, color me surprised (no pun intended) that I found out Memphis had attractions like the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum.

I mean, there’s a good amount of attractions that focus on Black history and culture, but even during my stays in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, I didn’t come across any that dived deep into the system of the Underground Railroad and how it worked. So finding this little gem was a true treat, and as soon as I found out about it (literally, I was just zooming in on Google Maps haha) I knew I had to go.

Personally, I think it’s a MUST DO in Memphis because regardless of whether or not you’re a music enthusiast, which most of the attractions focus on, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is something you can’t find in other cities and makes Memphis worth visiting!

*Pictures were not allowed during the tour, so excuse my use of stock images thoroughout this post!

What is the Underground Railroad?

gif of a man holding onto a train cabin and yelling "all aboard"

But first…if you aren’t American (or…yanno even if you are tbh), you may be wondering to yourself: what is the Underground Railroad?

In short: the Underground Railroad was a network of routes and safe houses established in the United States during the late 18th century (1780s onward, basically since the founding of the USA) all the way up to the Civil War in 1860s. Almost an entire century. Essentially, the Underground Railroad was a network of people (the Quakers, empathetic white landowners, Indigenous communities, and both freed and still enslaved Black people) who offered shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people.

The Underground Railroad was used by enslaved African Americans (primarily) to escape into the free states in the North and to Canada which abolished slavery in 1834.

And, fun fact, while most enslaved people escaped North, the Underground Railroad ALSO ran South! Mexico abolished slavery even earlier than Canada in 1829. For some enslaved folks, especially in Texas, the journey to Mexico was much more achievable. Similar to how the routes worked running North, the freedom route to Mexico was aided by empathetic Mexicans, Tejanos, freed Black people in Mexico, and numerous Indigenous communities on both sides of the border (some seeking asylum as well!).

So…no, it wasn’t an actual railroad with a train that chugga chugga’d enslaved people to freedom. But…you get the analogy, right?

“The Underground Railroad wasn’t a train, baby” – Phaedra Parks

Why Memphis?

Okay that’s great and all…but what does that have to do with Memphis, Tennessee? Memphis was a MAJOR slave market! Why put the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in Memphis and not somewhere in the Deep South…or even in the North at the “end” of the journey?

It’s true, Memphis had a booming slave market. Before the Civil War, 25% of the city’s population were enslaved people. But that’s also part of the reason why it makes sense. For some, Memphis WAS the start of the Underground Railroad form them, and for others, it was the light at the end of the tunnel. They had made it all the way to Memphis – they could keep going.

But also, the largest reason to why this museum exists in Memphis is…because the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is housed by an ACTUAL stop on the Underground Railroad. Like…frfr.

Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant who owned and built the home, was among those in the anti-slavery movement and was an “operator” in the Underground Railroad from about 1855 until the abolishment of slavery. Due to the essence of the Underground Railroad operations – aka SECRECY – this fact went unknown until 1997, with the traces of the house’s history still embedded in its bones. And now, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum the only one of it’s kind in the southern United States.

See? I told you it’s a must-do.

Hours & Cost

Now that you’ve got yourself to Memphis, visiting the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is the easy part. They are open Tuesday through Saturday between the hours of 10am and 4pm, though in the summer months (June through August), they stay open until 5pm. Because of the delicate historical state of the property, visitors are not allowed to roam freely around the museum. Instead, tours are given every hour, so be prepared to show up about 10-15 minutes before the new hour!


  • Tuesday-Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday)
  • 10am-4pm (5pm in the summer June 1st-Aug 31st)
  • Tours given on the hour

At the time of my visit (2022), I believe the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum was cash only (or cash preferred), I don’t remember – so please remember to have cash available to pay! Also at the time of my visit, masks were required inside the museum. The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum isn’t very big, so you can imagine how tight things can get on a busy day. They had masks available if you didn’t have one, but better to be safe just in case and bring your own!

Admission (in USD)

  • $12.00 Adults
  • $10.00 Students (ages 4-17)
  • $11.00 Seniors and College Students
  • Group Rates Available (20+ people)

If you are looking for a more in-depth experience and see how the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum plays into a the larger picture of Memphis, there are also heritage tours available. This is a 3 hour tour that includes the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum as well as 30 other historical sites around Memphis. I personally did not do this (because I found out too late), but it sounds dope! The tour includes all transportation, admission, and guide services!

Heritage Tours (reservations required)

• $50.00 Adults
• $48.00 Seniors
• $48.00 College Students
• $38.00 Students (ages 4-17)

My Experience

keke palmer saying lets get into it gif

After grabbing a quick warm drink from the best cafe in Memphis (spoiler, it’s Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club), I made my way over to the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. I arrived inbetween the hour, so I just stayed in my car until the hour. There is plenty of free on-site parking!

At the hour, everyone else also waiting in their car gathered to pay and enter the building. The entrance is actually in the back of the building. The tour was led by none other than the museum director herself, Elaine Turner. She walks you through each room of the humble house, explaining the photos on the wall that weave the story of the Underground Railroad.

We had a few small children on our tour (they seemed to be aged between 5-7ish), so naturally they would get a little restless and distracted. Turner was great at engaging the kids, even the young ones, and towards the end they really started to get into the storytelling and exploring the house. One did fall asleep though (naptime hits hard!), and the parent had to carry the small girl. The tour itself lasts about an hour.

The tour covered the early beginnings of the slave trade in the Americas, as well as the activists who were adamantly against it. The topic covered a few of the notable individuals involved in the Underground Railroad, like Harriet Tubman who personally led enslaved folks to slavery using the Underground Railroad.

How did it Become a Beacon of Safety?

We then learned about the man who built the house, Jacob Burkle. Burkle had fled oppression in Germany, so arriving in America and seeing the BLATANT oppressive injustice in Memphis and throughout the country deeply disturbed him. He was determined to use his privilege to help. He turned his house into a safe haven and regular stop along the Underground Railroad, fully understanding the grave risk it posed to him and his family. When he saved up enough money, he would also purchase enslaved folks from the Memphis slave market in order to free them.

Because Burkle lived on a large plot of land with several stockyards AND relatively remote from the city bustle of Memphis, it was an ideal location. But that didn’t mean they had it easy. The tour led us to another part of the house where we sat down (woo, I love sitting) and Turner explained how the Underground Railroad was INCREDIBLY intricate.

It wasn’t just people crossing their fingers and running in the general direction of the North.

For one, there were no GPS back then. In fact, the majority of enslaved folks were banned from learning to read, math beyond simple counting, how to interpret maps…yanno, all the tools that would have made the journey easier. Nope, none of that. Instead, they used other methods. I won’t spoil it all for you, because it really is incredible, but there are a lot of ways to pass along information.

At the end of the tour, Turner revealed a secret cellar to the house that gave way to a small basement, and soon it all began to piece together. I wasn’t able to stand up straight, and there were airholes open to the outside, but with no instillation, it was also open to the harsh weather. And critters. And potentially nosy neighbors. There was so much hidden within the walls of this home, and still more secrets to be uncovered – and that’s what Turner and the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum crew are for.

Final Thoughts

My Southern road trip included a LOT of museums, historical sites, and tours that explored Black history in America. That said, hands down, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is one of the BEST Black history museums in the USA. Right up there with the Greenwood Black Wall Street Tour. And I mean that. For one, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is one of a kind, but it’s also just FANTASTIC on its own merit.

The tour was very smooth and easy to follow, even if you don’t know much about America or its history with slavery. The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is so thoroughly and thoughtfully curated, and the extra appreciation of housing it inside a home that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad…wow. The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum really is a gem and I’m baffled it’s not talked about more on Memphis blog posts!

If you do ANYTHING in Memphis, go to the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. Trust me.

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