FOX13 Investigates: Memphis’ painful slavery past

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 2019 marks 400 years since the start of slavery in the united states and for centuries blacks were relegated to second class status.

Four centuries after the first slave ship sailed across the Atlantic to the U.S., FOX13’s Ernie Freeman looks at the slavery years in Memphis.

They would have hide in the cellar, underneath the house, stepping through a cellar door into America’s darkest period. Slavery.

“You gotta duck down if you're a certain height down here,” said Elaine Lee Turner, Director of the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. “Oh, certainly, but it was a hiding place, it was a safe place.”

The house was built in 1856 by a German immigrant named Jacob buckle, who served as a station on the Underground Railroad, which is a secret network of houses, churches and escape routes for slaves seeking freedom.

6-years before the house was built, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which it means slaves could no longer find freedom in the northern states.

“The slaves come here, seeking refuge, seeking freedom, where are they going during this time,” Turner said. “They're headed north and at this time, they would have had to go to Canada in order to secure their freedom.

Memphis was founded in 1819, a full 200-years after the first Africans were captured, shipped across the Atlantic and sold into a life of bondage, in what would become the United States.

They first arrived in Jamestown, VA in 1619.

In 1808, the U.S. outlawed the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade but domestic slave trading was legal and growing in the south.

In the early 1840s and 50s, the slave trade was a booming business in Memphis.

Cotton was king and the plantations need the labor.

Historians said that a local slave trader, Nathan Bedford Forrest, set up a slave market, right on Adams St. and they said he sold thousands of slaves and made millions of dollars.

It would take a bloody civil war and the passage of the 13 Amendment before slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865.

400-years after Jamestown, scholars like the Reverend Doctor Earle Fisher, a local activist, said we must never forget.

“Those were not slaves that arrived in Jamestown, VA in 1619,” Fisher said. “Those were human beings made in the image of God, who were subjected to the horrors of enslavement.”

“Because of an ideology and an economic philosophy of white supremacy and capitalism.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the distribution of white supremacist propaganda is up three-fold in recent years.

The FBI said racially charged hate crimes rose three straight years between 2014 and 2017.

This kind of atmosphere fuels concerns of a rise of white nationalism.

"If somebody puts a bill on the house floor tomorrow and wants to try to return to legalized forms of slavery it something that's always possible,” Fisher said. “And if you think about the philosophy and ideology of white nationalism, and how prevalent it is, it would not be in our best interest to rule out.”

The biggest unkept promise America made to freed slaves, after the civil war, was payment for their centuries of free labor. The reparations.

A promise that died with the assassination of President Lincoln.

An unkept promise Fisher said is still being felt in black America.

"If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and take it out six, we don't call that progress,” Fisher said. “You don't call it progress until, not only is the knife fully removed, but the wound is stitched up, which means the wound is repaired.”

“Repair is the root word of reparations. So, the function of reparations is to repair emotion, social and economic damage that was caused by the exploitation of black labor.”

“So, there's a reason for the ills that we face in our society and until we address them face them and be truthful about what really happened in these 400 years then we will continue to be faced with the same problems,” Fisher said.

Just a reminder that the door to a dark time in history, might not be completely closed.

If you would like to visit the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, it is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 826 N. Second St.