Underground Railroad blocks with colour manipulation
Underground Railroad blocks with colour manipulation,
surrounding a photo transfer of Harriet ‘Moses’ Tubman
(photo courtesy of Moreland - Spingarn Research Center,
Howard University, Washington D.C.)

In the decades before the outbreak of America’s Civil War in 1861, the issue of slavery led to the development of the ‘underground railroad.’ Not a tunnel, not commercial transportation, the underground railroad was an irregular system for assisting escaping slaves as they made their way to freedom. Northerners who were opposed to slavery on religious or moral grounds carefully spread the word that they would assist fugitive slaves, providing shelter and transport to another safe haven. Free blacks living in northern states enabled escaping slaves to vanish into their communities.

Some who had themselves escaped slavery made forays into the slave states of the southern United States to lead fugitives to freedom. It was a risky business, and against the law. Those who attempted escape on their own moved from one dangerous uncertainty to another through unknown territory, where their physical appearance alone was enough to jeopardize their safety. While many reached freedom in the northern states and Upper Canada, far more were caught, returned to slavery, and punished.

'What If...?'
'What If...?' Bonded and appliquéd
by hand and machine, with
dimensional aspects, by the author
and machine quilted by Cecelia
Purciful of Sheridan, Indiana; now
in the collection of Sharon Harleman
Tandy of Boise, Idaho. The image
of General Robert E. Lee and the
Southern battle flag are slightly
anachronistic

The Original Quilt Codes

Today, rotary cutters at the ready, quilters have found a new path to the underground railroad. A number of widely disseminated misunderstandings about the role of quilts in the flight of slaves prior to the Civil War, and in the underground railroad, have captured the popular imagination. The idea is twofold: first, that slaves made quilts on the southern plantations where they lived, and then displayed specifically chosen patterns in sequence, hanging the ‘coded’ quilts outdoors as a signal that preparations should be taken for escape; and secondly, that abolitionists hung specifically patterned quilts outdoors to signal that theirs was a safe house along the road to freedom. (Log cabin quilts with black centred blocks are most frequently cited.) The idea creates an acceptable filter through which Americans can apologize for slavery, and wraps it in quilts.

Immediate questions should arise; who on the southern plantations devised the ‘codes,’ how were they disseminated, who made the quilts, where did they get the time and fabrics to do so, how were ‘messages’ in quilts spread from one slave community to another, why were more normal means of communication not used to convey the same information? Were abolitionists’ quilts hung outdoors in all weather, and at night? Were black centred log cabin quilts really a sign of a safe haven? These are just a few of the questions that might be asked about this romanticized, unsubstantiated, illogical ‘history’ purporting to reveal secret codes in quilts.

What would happen if a Southern sympathizer hung a black centred log cabin quilt outdoors? In the four-block quilt called ‘What If...?’, a child’s bedwetting requires his mother to wash and dry his quilt, observed by runaway slaves hiding in the bushes. Believing the ‘message’ in the quilt they approach the house, where the southern sympathizers hold them at gunpoint and await the arrival of the slave catcher. Unaware of the tragedy, black and white children play together until the slaves are marched away in chains.

Fact or Fiction?

The book at the center of the controversy, Hidden in Plain View, A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Raymond Dobard and Jacqueline Tobin (1999), offers no documentary evidence that the theory advanced is valid, cites no independent sources, and offers in illustration newly made quilts. Names of the patterns shown and described as ‘codes’ in the book are known to have originated in the 20th century. Moreover, embellishing the experiences of African-American slaves with fictional information denigrates and denies the history of these enslaved people.

Underground Railway Blocks
Underground Railway Blocks

Quilt historians in the United States have researched quilt patterns and pattern names extensively, paying particular attention to the patterns named in the volume as ‘codes’ used by slaves. For example, among those patterns are Double Wedding Ring, and Monkey Wrench. The first has never been found in mid-19th century quilt formats, and the tool called a monkey wrench was invented just before the Civil War, far too late to have been a model for a ‘code’ quilt block design. And a Star block is identified as related to the song ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ (i.e., North Star), which also has a dubious history. Fragments of the song were collected by a folklorist in the 1920s, and appear to have only a tenuous and unproven connection to the 19th century.

The book’s theory hangs on a slender thread, a single ‘family story’ narrated by an African-American woman in Charleston, South Carolina, whose business was selling quilts in a local marketplace, and the interpretation given it by the white teacher of Women’s Studies at the University of Denver (Colourado). The book describes a series of quilt block designs supposedly created by slaves, the names of which suggested ‘codes’; interestingly, the block called Underground Railroad is not among them. No surviving quilts supporting the theory have been found; no other African-American families have come forth to attest to similar ‘code’ tales in their own families, and no ‘freedom quilts’ are mentioned in the thousands of narratives from former slaves, recorded during the 1930s.

The Underground Railway block
The Underground Railway block

These considerations have not deterred the popularizers, who have seized on the story as a way of involving the emotions of quilt makers, school children, the press, and the general public. The story has taken on a life of its own, adding dimensions as it gathers strength. Like kudzu, an insidious and destructive vine introduced into the United States as a food source, but which now covers over seven million acres of fields, trees, even buildings in the American South, the Underground Railroad quilt ‘myth’ has expanded in many directions. And truth has been an early casualty.

In the classroom

'What If...?' (detail)
'What If...?' (detail)

There are a number of children’s books fixed on the idea of ‘freedom quilts.’ A popular sampler series of Underground Railroad patterns, complete with fictional stories for each block, has been released by a well-known quilt instructor. Reviewers of her book preferred to believe the legend of ‘quilt codes,’ and embraced the idea that the patterns given were of Civil War vintage despite scholarship to the contrary. In 2002 the National Security Agency in Annapolis, Maryland, mounted a cryptology exhibit, including a display of ‘coded’ quilts. There are myriad websites featuring mathematics fun, art projects, and social studies activities for classroom use. There are periodic public quilt exhibits that include Underground Railroad quilts, often citing Hidden in Plain View as an historical and validating source. And the family of the woman (now deceased) interviewed by Tobin has developed a lecture series and a museum, for which they sought government funding.

'What If...?' (detail)
'What If...?' (detail)

A tribute to the slaves

Since it seems unlikely that serious quilt scholars will be able to stem the tide of misinformation about Underground Railroad quilt ‘code’ patterns, perhaps quilters themselves can direct their efforts in the interest of accuracy. While there is no way to put a kinder spin on slavery, there may be patterns that can be used individually or in sampler format as a tribute to the courage of those who struggled under slavery, and those who sought to remedy their condition. Patterns with appropriate-sounding names, the majority from the 20th century, can be found in Barbara Brackman’s weighty compendium, Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns (1993).

The Name Game

The rapid growth of commercialism in quilt making towards the end of the 19th century, and well into the 1920s and 1930s, was accompanied in the United States by books on quilt history, and pattern sources including catalogues, leaflets, and batting wrappers. Rather than using prosaic pattern numbers, early publishers of designs gave them names. Some names came from public memory, while others were created to suit the illustrated design or the whim of the writer. Confusing and often contradictory names have now been organized into an indexing system devised by Brackman.

Over 4000 patterns are presented numerically, based on their geometric construction, with multiple printed sources listed for each. For instance, the design called Underground Railroad (Brackman #1695) by Ruth Finley in her 1929 classic Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them, is also identified by Finley in the same volume as Stepping Stones, The Tail of Benjamin’s Kite, Trail of the Covered Wagon, and Wagon Tracks, depending on colour placement. It is also closely related to Jacob’s Ladder.

The Free Trade Block
The Free Trade Block

Finley’s Underground Railroad is the only instance cited in Brackman of a quilt block by that name. While the Underground Railroad movement is easily documented, the pattern name is not. Finley attributes the name to a region of northeastern Ohio called the Western Reserve, an area settled by residents from Connecticut, where the abolitionist movement was especially strong. She likens the pattern to a mental image of ". . . Eliza of 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' crossing the ice (on the Ohio River) from Kentucky to Ohio, whence the underground railroad carried runaway slaves to the promised land of Canada" (page 71). The reference is to the 1852 serialized book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, on the Ohio River.

Finding Freedom

In addition to considering the 20th century Underground Railroad block as the basis for a commemorative quilt, today’s quilt maker might choose Brackman #1222 Blacks and Whites, #3079 Slave Chain, or #2169 Free Trade, memorializing those Quaker abolitionists who refused to buy, sell, or use goods made by slave labour. Those familiar with the history of slavery in the United States, and the struggles of those who lived and died under the system, may recognize other 20th century block names that might logically be included. The abolitionists; Harriet ‘Moses’ Tubman, who made dangerous and successful forays into the South to bring her enslaved compatriots to freedom; the freedom seekers who dared to ‘steal away’; and those who tried and died deserve recognition. If it is to be through quilts, make them bold and beautiful – and with a degree of historical accuracy!

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 14 Number 3 - March 2006