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Slave Haven Museum director discusses push for Juneteenth state holiday

“The first people on this Earth were birthed right in Africa, so this is why it’s important for them to get that background," she said.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — “All the way up top that’s Harriet Tubman, she was not satisfied being free herself, she returned to the South 19 times,” said the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum’s director, Elaine Lee Turner, on Friday to a group of visitors.  

If you enter inside the museum, you’re stepping back to revisit the past, one afflicted by slavery.  

“When I was growing up and going to school I did not learn about this history,” said Turner, who is also president of Heritage Tours.  

She’s referring to African history.

“It’s a missing piece in the history of America,” she said.

She’s dedicated the last 27 years to filling in those missing pieces. 

“The first people on this Earth were birthed right in Africa, so this is why it’s important for them to get that background," she said.

The museum, originally the Burkel Estate, was used to hide slaves in the mid-1800s.

Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant, was among those in the anti-slavery movement who risked their lives to help escaping Africans by harboring them in their homes and aiding them on their journey to freedom. 

Burkle, a stockyard owner, operated an Underground Railroad way station on the outskirts of Memphis from around 1855 until the abolition of slavery.  

Beneath the historic house is a cellar, where runaway slaves hid in the safe house, still sits. The runaways then went on to travel to freedom in the north when it was safe. 

Such history right here in Memphis is often overlooked. Turner said her passion is educating the youth so they are inspired to play their part to defend everyone’s freedoms. 

“If they knew their past they would know the contributions of people who have gone before them and paved the way,” Turner said.  

Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday last year, signed into law by President Joe Biden. Now, legislation by Gov. Bill Lee to make it a state holiday is in the works, as well.

The museum’s director said while there is the Fourth of July, which African-Americans celebrate, a recognized day which actually freed black people should be declared here in Tennessee.  

“Juneteenth should definitely be that day,” she explained. “A day that not only African-Americans can celebrate, but all white Americans and everybody can say well we finally granted freedom to those that we enslaved all these hundreds of years.”

Turner shared why she believes the holiday has taken hundreds of years to be recognized.

“This is a part of African history that a majority of the white community did not want to acknowledge. Once you acknowledge something then you are inclined to do something about it.”

Rep. Karen Camper, who is carrying the Juneteenth bill, said the legislation would allow Tennesseans to further open their cultural lens. 

She said the bill is set to be discussed in the subcommittee next week. 

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