Did quilts help guide escaped slaves to safety? Did different quilt blocks have specific meanings to slaves, perhaps based on their African past? Was the pattern of stitches and knots informative about routes to take, perhaps creating a topographical map?
The most famous telling of a quilt code says that indeed, quilts were a vital part of the Underground Railroad, and their history with it was unwritten until very recently.
One of the blocks in the quilt code is the Bear's Paw, shown here.
This pattern consists of several squares, rectangles, and right triangles. When different scraps of fabric are used, the pattern takes on the complexity of a map that is remarkably similar in design to the African Hausa embroidered map of a village ...The Underground Railroad is attributed with helping to move thousands of slaves to freedom during the late-1700s to mid-1800s. Not a physical railroad, of course, it was an "underground" movement of abolitionists and allies, with a web of routes and safe houses. The routes traveled north to Canada, south to Mexico and Spanish Florida. Those slaves who escaped endured incredible trials of strength and courage.
Just as the Hausa design defines the perimeter of the village and identifies major landmarks, the Bear's Paw pattern could be used to identify landmarks on the border of the plantation ...
Because the bears lived in the mountains and knew their way around, their tracks served as road maps enabling the fugitives to navigate their way through the mountains. ... The bears' trails formed a map.
From Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.
There are documented truths about the Underground Railroad, from those who made it function and those who escaped. But it also has been romanticized and mythologized. It is not always easy to separate fact from fiction.
Hidden in Plain View?
Prior to 1999, there were few known sources claiming the existence of a quilt code. According to the great wikipedia,
The first known assertion of the use of quilts ... 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.In 1999, the stories of a woman named Ozella McDaniel Williams were published in the book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. The book also includes a mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times.
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." 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). ...
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.
Author Tobin met Williams, a South Carolina quilt vendor, at a flea market mall. "Ozella," as the book refers to her, told Tobin stories she claimed were passed down through her family. This oral history, if confirmed, would change our understanding of methods of communicating about the Underground Railroad and routes to freedom.
According to Williams, there were eleven quilt blocks in the code. The blocks were sewn into quilts, which would be displayed one at a time on fences or clothes lines. Because it was normal to air quilts regularly, showing the quilts this way wouldn't arouse suspicion by owners or overseers.
The blocks shown below, as well as the Double Wedding Ring block, were in Williams' version discussed in the book. Some versions include other blocks, as well.
A short version of the code says
The Monkey Wrench turns the Wagon Wheel toward Canada on a Bear's Paw trail to the Crossroads. Once they got to the Crossroads, they dug a Log Cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin Bow Ties and go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange Double Wedding Rings. Flying Geese stay on the Drunkard's Path and follow the Stars.The book presents this very short interpretation, but it includes linkages and suppositions and speculations about the meanings of all the blocks, as well. For example, the Bear's Paw block shown above is interpreted as both a map of the plantation itself, as well as advice to follow actual bears' trails over the mountain.
About another, the Monkey Wrench block, the authors state, "Ozella told us that a quilt made of Monkey Wrench patterned blocks was the first of the ten quilts displayed ... a signal for the slaves to begin their escape preparations" and gather physical and mental tools.
Along with this understanding of the block, the authors include discussion of the role of the blacksmith on the plantation, with tools including the monkey wrench. The blacksmith's metal-working ability may have hidden the smith's function of conveying information to other slaves under the ring of the hammer. A photo of an African textile is shown, to further convey the importance of tools in the previous environment.
More than 120 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, claims of a quilt code arose. Had the evidence been missed all those years? Was the truth really hidden in plain view?