Friday, December 19, 2008

The myth of quilt codes and the Underground Railroad

I have put off this post for far too long.

In 1999, a book was published which rocked the quilting world. In it, a very startling claim was made: Quilts had been used on the Underground Railroad to transmit hidden messages. A quilt hung on a clothesline in a particular way or with certain quilt block patterns and colors could signify a "safehouse," or a place where a runaway slave could be assured of safety on her flight to freedom. The story was told to a researcher as she traveled throughout the South; the person making the claim was an older woman, trying to sell her quilts.

Unfortunately, much as we'd like to believe it, there is no truth in this story.

When evaluating whether or not a particular claim has truth, it has to meet certain parameters, such as, more than one primary or original source must make the claim. Namely, if this story had any truth at all, then at least one or two sources from pre-Civil war times would have made the same claim. The problem is, there are none. There is not one journal kept during this time, or one slave that lived during this time, that affirms the story of quilt codes. There was an extensive project performed during the 1930s known as the Federal Writers' Project in which the last living former slaves were interviewed, and they talked about their lives during slavery. If there was such a thing as a quilt code, then at least one of the 2,300 interviews would have made mention of it. Not one person even hinted at this. Even Harriet Tubman's biography, which made mention of the Underground Railroad, never mentioned these quilts.

The researcher at least had the presence of mind to question the quilt vendor about the total absence of evidence of a quilt code. The quilt vendor stated that, the quilt code was so secret, that conductors on the Underground Railroad, as well as the slaves who used it, were sworn to secrecy, and thus never mentioned it. Of course, since slavery ended with the Civil War, it makes sense that at least someone would have said something from 1865 until the 1990s, but again, there was never a mention of any quilt codes.

Another issue which shoots even more holes in the quilt code story is the fact that many of the quilt blocks that were allegedly a part of the quilt code were not even invented, or at least named, until after the Civil War. For example, a noted quilt historian has found no evidence that the Log Cabin quilt block existed, and existed by this name, before the Civil War. Another problematic block is the Wedding Ring. Again, this pattern was not in existence before the 20th century. Other quilt block patterns are similarly problematic.

The worst part of all is the fact that several books have been written based on this fabricated tale. All of these books point to this erroneous source and perhaps one other earlier source, equally erroneous. There has never been any indication that the quilt code is anything more than wishful thinking. It is a comforting thought, to take the ugliness of slavery and wrap it in a fanciful tale of quilts being used to guide slaves on their way to freedom. However, there is simply not one shred of evidence to support this notion.

1 comment:

  1. There is a lot of things written in our history books that are not true or does not give credit to or address it as it happened. I feel that because a slave (2300) didn't tell someone the secret does not mean that it does not happen. I would not tell something that I had lived keeping a secret for my safety either. It is not believed because it is of no benefit to anyone who does not want to believe it. I believe it, especially since an alternate strategy had to be designed based on the initial "singing" became known to master. Read the bible, "speaking to yourselves in hymns and songs, making melody unto the Lord". It was against the law to teach a slave to read, but it was not against the law for them to listen and guess what, they were taught in Sunday school. Last, but not least, check the date and history of Ardinka Symbols. Quilting is not new, check African history and the slave were brought from Africa, but they brought the memories and with them.


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