Quilts of the Underground Railroad

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The slave quilt code is the idea that African American slaves used quilts to communicate information about how to escape to freedom. The idea was introduced and popularized throughout the 1890s. Most quilt scholars and historians consider the "code" to be completely lacking any basis in fact.

Origins and promotion of the "code"

The first known assertion of the use of quilts in connection with the Underground Railroad was a single statement in the narration of the 1987 video Hearts and Hands, which stated "They say quilts were hung on the clotheslines to signal a house was safe for runaway slaves." This assertion does not appear in the companion book and is not supported by any documentation in the filmmaker's research file.[1]

The first print appearance of such a claim was Stitched from the Soul, a 1990 book by folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry, which states—without providing any source—"Quilts were used to send messages. On the Underground Railroad, those with the color black were hung on the line to indicate a place of refuge (safe house)...Triangles in quilt design signified prayer messages or prayer badge, a way of offering prayer. Colors were very important to slave quilt makers. The color black indicated that someone might die. A blue color was believed to protect the maker."[1] Fry's book is rife with other errors, including a number of quilts which she misdated by anywhere from 50 to 100 years (e.g., one claimed slave quilt contains multiple fabrics from the 1960s).[2] In the early 1990s, several picture books for children drew upon and expanded this notion. The best known is Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, in which a girl makes a quilt that acts as a map of the area surrounding the plantation upon which she's a slave; the author, Deborah Hopkinson has repeatedly stated that it's a work of fiction inspired by Stitched from the Soul.[1]

The idea, clearly presented as fiction in Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, that slave quilts served as coded maps for escapees, entered the realm of claimed fact in the 1999 book Hidden in Plain View, written by Raymond Dobard, Jr., an art historian, and Jacqueline Tobin, a college instructor in Colorado.[3] Dobard's interpretations of the geometric configurations of certain quilt blocks is based on the oral statements of Ozella McDaniel Williams, a quilt vendor in South Carolina. Williams pointed to certain quilt blocks and recited a poem to Tobin, in short segments, over three years (before the total "code" was revealed). The blocks, according to information reportedly passed down in Mrs. Williams' family, are said to have been created for the purpose of communication, namely, how to get ready to escape, what to do on the trip, and how to follow a path to freedom.

These theories have been adopted widely for use in classrooms in the United States as a more palatable and fun way to share "history" instead of talking about the harsh and brutal realities as well as challenges of slave escapes. Those who have accepted the theories advanced as history, rather than the speculative quality that Dobard himself indicates is the case, have been eager to share this information via talks. The theory gained publicity when it appeared in newspapers, on a segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show featuring Dobard. The quilt code has resulted in children in school "memorizing" the "code" and making quilt blocks and quilts in either paper or cloth to honor the period of history when it was legal for southern plantation owners to own human beings and force them to work at their bidding.

In a 2007 Time magazine article, Tobin (co-author of Hidden in Plain View) stated:

"Whether or not it's completely valid, I have no idea, but it makes sense with the amount of research we did."[4]

Debunking the "code"

Giles Wright, a now deceased university history professor who wrote a book about the Underground Railroad was the first to publicly discount the slave quilt code theory. No extant quilts, quilt blocks, nor written or oral testimony have been found to support such a theory. This includes documentary evidence, such as slave memoirs, Works Progress Administration oral history interviews of escaped slaves, and abolitionist accounts of the Underground Railroad. The conclusion of many professional historians and quilt historians is that the secret quilt code is utterly without basis in history.

Barbara Brackman, author of Clues in the Calico, considered to be the "Bible of dating antique quilts", has written a book, Facts and Fabrications.[5] The book uses "poetic license" to offer other quilt blocks that were not used in association with the Underground Railroad but whose names suggest historical connections. Some of the quilt blocks are newly designed by the author.

After reading Hidden in Plain View, quilt historian Patricia Cummings thought that the story "did not add up." After hearing a talk by L'Merchie Frazier of Boston, Massachusetts, in January 2004, at the New Hampshire Historical Society, Cummings went home and within four days wrote a more than 4,000 word essay, "Symbolism in Quilts ... Part of the Underground Railroad?" and illustrated an ensuing newspaper article with photos of antique quilt blocks or new examples that she made for the occasion. That piece of writing first appeared in February 6 – March 11, 2004 issue of Unravel the Gavel, a newspaper that is circulated to antique dealers and customers in New Hampshire and elsewhere. The article was later reprinted as a 10-page feature in the June 2004 issue of Needlearts magazine, published by the Embroiderers' Guild of America. She wrote a new updated article for The Quilter magazine, in September 2004. Cummings then added an online article she titled "The Underground Railroad and the Question of Quilt Blocks: The Roots and Impact of a New American Myth", published on the website Quilter's Muse Publications. The article "A New American-Quilt-Myth: the Secret Quilt Code and the Underground Railroad" was added to the website in 2012,[6] as well as several other related articles.

Kris Driessen — quilt historian, owner of the QuiltBug Quilt Shop, and owner of the Quilt History list — wrote an article titled "Putting it in Perspective; the Symbolism of Underground Railroad Quilts", that explores the possibility of quilts being used as communication devices in the context of the time.[7]

A discussion of this topic vis a vis the viewpoint of folklore is a talk by Laurel Horton at the International Quilt Study Center.[8]

Leigh Fellner is a quilt historian and independent researcher whose website includes the article: The Underground Railroad Quilt "Code": Betsy Ross Redux.[1] Fellner sought to verify the genealogy of Ozella McDaniel Williams' family through letters with Ozella's relative, Teresa Kemp. Kemp founded the Underground Railroad Museum in Atlanta, Georgia and she travels with her family to provide talks to many groups.

Giles Wright, an historian and authority on the Underground Railroad in New Jersey (who wrote a book on the subject that is now out of print), was one of the first to actively debunk the notion of the secret quilt code.[9] Wright has critiqued the thoughts presented in Hidden in Plain View.[10]

Kimberly Wulfert, Ph.D., was instrumental in bringing the ideas of Mr. Wright to the public's eye via her website.[11]

Xenia Cord, a prominent quilt historian and antiques dealer, published an article about the Underground Railroad and quilts, in the United Kingdom. She has actively taken issue with the "code." She holds a master's degree in English and in History.[12]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Fellner, Leigh. "Betsy Ross Redux: the Underground Railroad "Quilt Code"". Hart Cottage Quilts. Retrieved 2013-01-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Questionable Sources". Hart Cottage Quilts. Retrieved 2013-01-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Hidden in plain view: the secret story of quilts and the underground railroad, Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1999. ISBN 0-385-49137-9
  4. Stukin, Stacie (2007-04-03). "Unravelling the Myth of Quilts and the Underground Railroad". TIME. Retrieved 2013-01-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Facts & Fabrications—Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery". C&T Publishing. Retrieved 2013-01-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. [1]
  7. "Underground Railroad Quilt Code – Putting it in Perspective". Quilthistory.com. Retrieved 2013-01-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. This podcast can be found at http://www.quiltstudy.org/education/public_programs.html The title of her presentation is "The Underground Railroad Quilt Controversy: Looking for the 'Truth'." Horton explores the recently introduced myth in terms of "belief systems".
  9. Wright's critique at Kimberly Wulfert's website: Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad
  10. Quilts and the Underground Railroad Revisited: Interview with Historian Giles R. Wright[dead link]
  11. The Underground Railroad and the Use of Quilts as Messengers for Fleeing Slaves[dead link]
  12. ""Underground Railroad" Quilts – Another View". Historyofquilts.com. Retrieved 2013-01-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • 1997: Barbara Brackman, Quilts from the Civil War: Nine Projects, Historic Notes, Diary Entries, ISBN 1-57120-033-9
  • 2006: Barbara Brackman, Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts And Slavery: 9 Projects, 20 Blocks, First-person Accounts, ISBN 1-57120-364-8
  • 2006: Leigh Fellner, "Betsy Ross Redux: The Underground Railroad 'Quilt Code'".
  • 2008: Shelley Zegart, Myth and methodology: Shelley Zegart unpicks African American Quilt Scholarship Selvedge, (ISSN 1742-254X) Issue 21 (Jan/February 2008) pp. 48–56.