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

"Underground Railroad" Quilts - Another View

~by Xenia E. Cord~

Quilt research and quilt history often rely heavily on the oral anecdotes and oral memories of quilters, stories that link women with common interests to a body of shared information. This information, strongly buttressed by written memoirs, documented sources, pictures, tangible artifacts, and previously published research allows the historian to contribute to the body of knowledge that is American quilt history.

Occasionally a theory is presented that offers an engaging view of the American past; the theory may not have substance and may not be documentable in any scholarly way, but it provides a vehicle through which we believe we can understand our past. This is the case with studies that supposedly reveal hidden codes or messages in quilts. A number of popularly disseminated misunderstandings about the role of quilts prior to the Civil War in the preparation and escape of fugitive slaves, and in the Underground Railroad are at present being taught to our children.

Without denigrating the courage of those who escaped slavery, without disparaging the roles played by those who assisted in moving folks along the road to freedom, we need to look objectively at the idea that quilts played a part. The idea is twofold: that slaves made quilts on the 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.

Immediate questions should arise. Who on the plantations devised the "codes," how were they disseminated, who made the quilts, where did they get the materials 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 abolitionist quilts hung outdoors in all weather, and at night? What would happen if a Southern sympathizer hung a quilt outdoors? 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.

I searched a number of books for references to quilts, codes, and escape from slavery, and found nothing. Among them were John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom, A History of Negro Americans (3rd. ed., 1967); Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, The World the Slaves Made (1974); Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame, Long Memory, The Black Experience in America (1982); and Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977). My particular frame of reference is to Indiana, and to the black experience here from the early 1800s. According to the census of 1860, there were over 232,000 free blacks living in Indiana on the eve of the Civil War. In my extensive research and documentation of black rural settlements in Indiana before 1860 (published in Wilma L. Gibbs (ed.), Indiana's African-American Heritage (1993), I found no references to quilts in conjunction with escaping slaves who vanished into Indiana's free black communities, or with the Underground Railroad in Indiana.

The book that started it all, Hidden in Plain View by Raymond Dobard and Jacqueline Tobin (1999), offers no documentary evidence that the theory advanced is valid, cites no independent sources (for instance, the thousands of narratives collected from former slaves by the WPA or the narratives of Harriet Tubman), and offers in illustration quilts in patterns known to have originated in the 20th century. The theory hangs from a slender thread, a single story narrated by an African American woman in Charleston, SC, 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. No surviving quilts supporting the theory have been found; other African American families have not come forth to attest to similar "code" tales in their own families.

A second book, Gladys-Marie Fry, Stitched From the Soul, Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South (1990), offers briefly, without substantiation, the information that "Log Cabin quilts containing black fabric often served as signals on the Underground Railroad to identify 'safe houses'" (legend for image no. 75, p. 52). Quilts are artifacts suggesting family and comfort; they are forever associated in our minds with the pioneer spirit and the making of the American home. Their visual imagery makes them ideal subjects for a number of educational investigations, but we must assure that the information we communicate to untutored audiences is historically accurate, and not ungrounded theory.

© 2004 Xenia E. Cord
American Quilt Study Group

(Do not reproduce any material from this site without permission.)

Suggested Websites:

The Role Quilts Played in the Underground Railroad, by Kris Driessen
This article gives an overview of the history of slavery and events leading up to the Civil War.

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 ]