Black History Month Quilting Edition, Part Two

Quilting has a very interesting history in the African American community, much of which is unfortunately overshadowed by the Underground Railroad quilt myth. I am splitting this edition into two parts: Part One features African American quilt history and contemporary artists; Part Two is devoted specifically to the Underground Railroad quilt.

The following information is from a fact sheet written by noted quilt historian Barbara Brackman, for which she has given permission for reproduction and distribution.

The “Quilt Code” — by Barbara Brackman

A hot topic in Black History is the story of quilts and the Underground
Railroad. Americans eager to discuss slavery are fascinated by tales of
quilts used as signals in the dangerous journey to freedom. The connection
between an American folk art, a mysterious secret code and the adventure of
the Underground Railroad has created an enduring tale that is fast becoming
a part of American legend. The quilt code has joined other appealing but
false stories like George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or Betsy
Ross designing the first American flag.

Countless school curriculums include how-to instructions for a quilt made
in the secret code. Museums feature symbolic quilts in exhibits dedicated to slavery. Historians often are asked questions:

  • Is it true that quilts were hung on clotheslines to signal escaping slaves of a “safe house”?
  • Were quilts read as maps to tell escapees the route to safety?
  • Did runaways use quilt patterns with names like the Double Wedding Ring or the Drunkard Path as code to communicate escape plans?

The fact is that we have no historical evidence of quilts being used as
signals, codes or maps. The tale of quilts and the Underground Railroad
makes a good story, but not good quilt history.

  • The Double Wedding Ring, Sunbonnet Sue and most of the other quilt patterns supposedly used as code did not exist before the Civil War.
  • While escaped slaves recorded signals such as whistles, songs and lanterns as useful in communicating on the run, absolutely no first person accounts of using quilts as signals exist.
  • Women in slavery made quilts; we have much historical evidence and many surviving quilts. People remembered using quilts in escapes, but they were used to warm fugitives or protect them from view. They did not serve as code.

What harm can a charming yet false story do? You be the judge. But do
realize that we are teaching a generation of children false history. And by
focusing on this connection we ignore our national obligation to learn about
the true and less charming stories of slavery.

Feel free to photocopy this sheet to help spread the truth about the myth.

— Barbara Brackman 2006Author of Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery

Yes, indeed — what harm can a charming yet false story do? Librarian Deborah Foley explains, “Young readers, however, can only trust that the material they are exposed to has been carefully selected and evaluated by knowledgeable adults.” Is this an issue that only concerns persnickity quilters? The Director of the Afro-American History Program for the New Jersey Historical Commision, Giles R. Wright, doesn’t think so and further expounds upon his views in an interview with Dr. Kimberly Wuhlfert. Rather than charming myths, it would be better to teach our children to think critically about an issue — so that they may grow up to be adults who can participate responsibly in society and politics. In an age where a startling number of people believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories, wouldn’t Middle School and High School students benefit from a thoughtful discussion of how myths develop and why some will choose to continue to believe a myth in the face of all evidence otherwise? Barbara Brackman’s Ideas for Teaching is a good place to start with an objective examination of the “quilt code.” Eva Bradshaw has created a quilt-based curriculum which, among other topics, explores the symbols of slavery and the signs that were used on the Underground Railroad

Noted quilt historian, Xenia Cord, offers her own perspective on the myth and discusses questions that a serious historian might ask when first presented with a theory or story.

Another quilt researcher with a background in folklore is Laurel Horton. Her presentation, The Underground Railroad Quilt Controversy: Looking for the “Truth” offers an interesting analysis of the story as folklore.

Patrica Cummings of The Quilter’s Muse dissects the story block-by-block in Underground Railroad Quilt Blocks: The Roots and Impact of a New American Myth.

Lastly, but no mean by least, Leigh Fellner started with an article that she wrote for the March 2003 Traditional Quiltworks magazine and ended up writing an entire book about the subject: Betsy Ross Redux: The Underground Railroad “Quilt Code.” The entire books is available, for free, online and is broken up into links by chapter. It’s an engaging read that explores both the myth and the industry that has grown up around it.

Please share this information with fellow quilters, teachers, and history buffs.

One comment

  1. Thank you. Its one myth that actually offends me by making the whole escape seem much more romantic than it was. People were running for their lives. They were hiding. They were not learning a complicated set of symbols that took ages to make…

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