Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

Sweet Clara's Freedom Hidden In Plain View;
A Quilted Maze of Skepticism and Controversy

by Cathleen Richardson Bailey
~ textile artist and writer ~

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, by Deborah Hopkinson, is a fictional account of a young girl's choice to find the Underground Railroad, reunite with her mother and secure their freedom. Young Clara listens as the people around her describe landscape beyond the plantation and from this information creates a secret, quilted map.

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Resistance hinges on the notion of secrecy and whispered information; the threat of betrayal is always just there. Harriet Tubman said, "a live runaway could do great harm by going back, but a dead one could tell no secrets." 1 The great Philadelphia Underground Railroad Station Master, William Still, hid his manuscript documenting fugitives' stories in a cemetery and waited more than five years after the end of the Civil War to publish them. Still cautioned, "the right hand was not to know what the left hand was doing." 2 Much like the cunning of "U-boats" 3 in Hitler's Germany, hidden in plain view almost always worked.

Harriet Jacob, in an effort to escape the "licentious" advances of Dr. James Norcom, first hid in a swamp and then for seven years, from 1835 to 1842, hid in the crawl space of her grandmother's roof. For air, she breathed through three rows of tiny holes. Secrecy tantamount to survival, her children could not visit her or even know of her lonely existence.

It was a pent roof, covered with nothing but shingles. . .the garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. . . . The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed. . . . I suffered for air even more than for light. But I was not comfortless. I heard the voices of my children. 4

For runaways, the North Star and Big Dipper provided a compass direction, but most enslaved people found themselves confined to plantations and uninformed about surrounding geography. Drivers and others skilled in labor, ironwork, animal husbandry and textiles often worked for neighboring plantations. At slave owners' whims, husbands sometimes benefited from passes to visit wives living on other plantations. Drivers, husbands and skilled, for-hire persons could bring back information -- a broad stream, a crooked tree, a widening and narrowing road, schedules of patrollers, caves for shelter.

[H]e found a cave and fixed him up a room where he could live. At nights he would come out on the place and steal enough to eat and cook it in his little dugout. . . .When I saw him, he look like a hairy ape, without no clothes on and hair growing all over his body. Dora Franks, Aberdeen, Mississippi. 5

On the other hand, Hidden In Plain View (HIPV), co-authored by Raymond Dobard and Jacqueline Tobin, is a nonfiction account of secret codes hidden in quilts purportedly employed by American's fleeing Southern slave owners and bounty hunters. While most enslaved Americans lacked formal education, community elders bequeathed another form of training in which to survive plantation life and cleverness flourished. Theories presented in HIPV seem in direct contrast to former slaves' rational historical ingenuity.

The power; however, of HIPV is concealed in its title and provides a glimpse into the cunning and initiative of Africans and African Americans who decided not to live as slaves. Decisions to escape at times resulted from spur of the moment, providential situations. For the most part; however, the people devised elaborate escape plans because, and in spite of, risks involved. Travel along the Underground Railroad was more than a scavenger hunt -- giggling runaways noticing a bow tie quilt and emerging out of somewhere to put on fancy clothes. There need not be documentation, that just doesn't make sense.

A discussion about the number of people Harriet Tubman escorted to freedom is now afloat. Scholarship can sometimes be relentless in its plucking away at American history as it relates to Africans and African Americans and looses sight of the obvious. That Tubman risked her life and went back for even one more slave is heroism. Whether 300 or 2, the number certainly generated an interest in authorities to which a bounty was offered for Tubman, dead or alive. So to, the overall number of escaping slaves hardly seems relevant.6 That people developed procedure and implemented strategies for escape hidden in plain view of slave owners and catchers is significant and worthy.

. . .[we] arranged passwords and grips, and a ritual, but we were always suspicious of the white man, and so those we admitted we put to severe tests. . .fugitives were hidden in a station near Lake Huron. . .There they found food and warmth, and when, as frequently happened they were ragged and thinly clad, we gave them clothing. Our boats were concealed under the docks, and before daylight we would have everyone over [to Canada]. We never lost a man by capture at this point, so careful were we. . .It was fight and run - danger at every turn, but that we calculated upon and were prepared for.
Detroit Station Masters, William Lambert and George DeBaptiste of the African-American Mysteries: The Order of the Men of Oppression. 7

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Others; terrified, anxious and brave, struck out on their own. Imagine the stink of sweat, the dilemma of crying babies, a sprained ankle, a broken leg, bleeding feet.

. . . .a poor slave mother carried her babe in her arms from Virginia. She was footsore and could be tracked by her bleeding feet. [the] slave's condition was related to [a white woman] who said, "Wait a moment. I must do something for the child" and going to her bed took from it one of the quilts saying, "Give this to the mother. It will keep the babe warm at night." 8

Adams Express unwittingly provided a nonstop route, Henry "Box" Brown probably its most famous merchandise. Lear Green declared she "had no fear" and escaped in "an old chest of substantial make, such as sailors commonly use. . .a quilt, pillow. . .and Lear placed therein. . .and. . .stowed amongst the ordinary freight." 9 Green's escape was made more complicated by her "being in the condition of becoming a mother." Further dangers ensued when additional people, free and enslaved, pressed themselves into service. Green's mother-in-law, a free woman, "agreed to come as passenger on the same boat."

The United States Constitution sanctioned slavery and elected officials opined freely their positions. The climate to hide behind political correctness had not yet been necessitated. In fact quite often the opposite occurred. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in his speech titled "The Crime Against Kansas," sought to expose the "wickedness" of slavery. His concern for impending politics in the new territory of Kansas prompted him to assert,

The rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of Slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved longing for a new slave State, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government. 10

The following day Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressional representative, attacked Sumner and beat him "into unconsciousness." 11 Proslavery Kansas citizens proclaimed, "Every white-livered abolitionist who [dares] set foot in Kansas should be hung," while Ohio Quakers at the Green Plain yearly meeting in answer to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law avowed,

. . .in defiance of all the enactments of all the governments on earth. . . .If it is really a constitutional obligation that all who live under the government shall be kidnappers and slave catchers for southern tyrants, we go for revolution. 12

Wilbur H. Siebert, Ohio State University professor of History (1891-1935) and Emeritus (1935-1961), described as the foremost scholarly authority on the Underground Railroad concluded that it was, "one of the greatest forces which brought on the Civil War and thus destroyed slavery." 13

We know of the work enslaved people put forth toward the Civil and other war efforts as soldiers, nurses and cooks; Tubman as Union spy, the option of slave owners to send male slaves to fight in their stead.

We spun blankets during the war. We could keep the nappy blankets but had to send the good ones to the army. . . Mollie Watson, Colbert, OK. Aged 83 14

We know American slaves as skilled textile artists who confronted abject poverty by using this devastation as inspiration for creativity and perseverance, a precursor to excelling in both extemporaneous and straight-line, patchwork quilting.

Grandma. . .used to piece up a heap of quilts out of our old clothes and any kind of scraps she could get a hold of. Martha Colquitt, Athens Georgia, 85 years old. 15 .

The Slave Narrative Project, (funded by the federal government with a resulting nineteen volumes), suggested a questionnaire as a tool for gathering information. The interviews show similar narrative layout. Most asked nonsensical questions about "voodoo," ghosts and children's games.

What games did you play as a child? Can you give the words or sing any of the play songs or ring games of the children? Riddles? Charms? Stories about "Raw Head and Bloody Bones" or other "haints" or ghosts? Stories about animals? What do you think of voodoo? Can you give the words or sing any lullabies? Work songs? Plantation hollers? Can you tell a funny story you have heard or something funny that happened to you? Tell about the ghosts you have seen. 16

Remarkably, number 11 asks an unambiguous and straight forward question.

Did the slaves ever run away to the North? Why? What did you hear about patrollers? How did slaves carry news from one plantation to another? Did you hear of trouble between blacks and whites? 17

Since former slaves received no governmental apology or offer of mental health professional to help manage the negative psychological effects of lives lived under tyranny, reminiscences about slave life may have unearthed terror in some former slaves and conversations about criminal acts deemed ominous and not to be disclosed. I wonder if anyone ever asked the question, "What about your skill as quilt-maker? Were quilts ever used for resistance?"

Slave narratives and autobiographies offer a plethora of information about this time in American history. Because America's "peculiar institution," is without benefit of film footage to cement useful images, actual movement of runaways and their accouterments in America's sometime limited psyche, we will never know the specifics of if or how quilts may have been used for resistance. Therefore, theories based on common sense and circumstantial evidence can provide vehicles to "understand our past," 18 and more importantly, allow America to embrace its past - all of it, the beautiful, ugly and sad of it. People pushed into action use available tools and as skilled quilt-makers, it is a logical assumption that enslaved women would draw upon the healing attributes, narrative propensity and power of the quilt medium to in some way, effect change -- a natural progression of events to champion one's own cause, counterespionage.

I often use Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt in my workshops with children. Through her words, Hopkinson has provided us an instrument to teach our children fortitude, fearlessness, imaginative possibilities, historical inclusion, and belief in the human and American spirit.

As a united group -- people in love with fabric, needle and thread -- American textile artists and scholars must be mindful of selective documentation and dismissive conclusions. While documentation of quilts and the UGRR may be illusive, broad statements like "We have to conclude that there was no special role quilts played in the Underground Railroad, 19 appear trite and anxious. Enslaved men and women count among America's quilting pioneers.

When old Mistress die I done all the sewing for the family almost. I could sew good enough to go out before I was eight years old, and when I got to be about ten I was better than any other on the place for sewing. I can still quilt without my glasses, and I have sewed all night long many a time while I was watching young master's baby after old mistress died. Sarah Wilson, Fort Gibson, OK. Aged 87 20

With respect and humility, we must not invite or make room for, the accomplishments of enslaved quilters into contemporary quilt society; we must request that they -- through our careful research and sensitive documentation of their lives and creativity -- include us in the foundation already laid by this noble community of textile artists.

My mammy she work in the field all day and piece and quilt all night. Then she have to spin enough thread to make four cuts for the white folks every night. Why sometime I never go to bed. Have to hold the light for her to see by. She have to piece quilts for the white folks too. Fannie Moore, Asheville, North Carolina. 21

Copyright 2004 Cathleen Richardson Bailey (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author)

For More Information

The Library of Congress; American Memory; Historical Collections for the National Digital Library

Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives

Deborah Hopkinson

Jim Crow Museum

1 Still, William. The Underground Railroad. Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1871, by William Still, in the Office of the Librarian of Congress. Washington, D.C. Reprinted 1970 by Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., p. 306

2 Ibid. p. xiii

3 The term "U-boats" refers to Jews living illegally, in plain view, in Hitler's Germany. Other Jews, much like slave catchers (but in this case, hoping to escape concentration camps and death) acted as agents for hunt and capture. See Wyden, Peter. Stella: One Woman's True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler's Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

4 Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Written by Herself. Harvard University Press, 1987 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. p. 114

5 Rawick, George P. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Series One and Two. Nineteen Volumes. Volume 7, Mississippi Narratives. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972, , p. 49, 50

6 Escape from slavery was not easy. Most slaves were uneducated and ill prepared for a long journey. Escapes were generally not planned; they were spur-of-the moment decisions made to take advantage of a favorable circumstance. Few took advantage of the Underground Railroad from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. In fact, of the 4 million slaves that escaped during the period 1830 - 1862, less than 1% fled north. "Putting it in Perspective: The Role Quilts Played in the Underground Railroad", Driessen, Kris;

7 Katz, William Loren. The Black West; A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States. New York. Simon & Schuster, a Touchstone Book, 1987, 1996, p. 100

8 Stephenson, Clarence D. The Impact of the Slavery Issue on Indiana County. Indiana County Historical Series. Number Two. Box 210, R.D. #1, Marion Center, Pennsylvania 15759. Mahoning Mimeograph & Pamphlet Service, 1964, 52-53

9 Still, p. 291, 292.

10 Charles Sumner of Massachusetts (1811, 1874), On the Crime Against Kansas, Senate, May 1856,

11 Katz. p. 115

12 Katz. p. 101

13 Still. The Underground Railroad. Quarles, Benjamin. Forward to 1970 Edition.

14 Baker, T. Lindsay and Baker, Julie P. WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives. Oklahoma. University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, pp. 453-54

15 Yetman, Norman R. Voices From Slavery. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970, pp. 60 - 65

16 Rawick. Volume 1. From Sundown to Sunup; The Making of the Black Community. p 175, 176

17 Ibid

18 "Underground Railroad" Quilts - Another View, Cord, Xenia E. Cord.

19 Driessen;

20 ,Baker, p. 496

21Yetman, p. 226-231

Visit Cathleen Richardson Bailey's site, An Artist's Journey.

Learn more about her Underground Railroad quilt, Shh!

More Information:

Underground Railroad Quilt Pattern
history of the underground railroad - jacob's ladder pattern.

The Underground Railroad and Abolition Quilts
how quilting played a role in emancipation of the slaves

[ Elizabeth Keckly | Harriet Powers | Sweet Clara | Underground Railroad ]


Click on each book
for more information.

Life of a slave Girl

Harriet Tubman biography

Frederick Douglass biography

Sweet Clara

Black West