Sunday, October 12, 2014

Underground Railroad Quilt Code

This  Bear Paw quilt pattern (which happened to be the first quilt pattern I ever made, circa 1974)  was one of the patterns said to be used as a signal in homes that participated in the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves before the Civil War. That quilts were used as signals is a pervasive story.  The Underground Railroad definitely existed -- safe houses where the escaping slaves could find food and shelter as they headed or Canada or other safe places facilitated the freedom of a great many slaves.

But the story of the "quilt code" did not exist until approximately 1986. Ah historian from Howard University happened to meet a dealer in antique quilts named Ozella McDaniels in South CArolina, a descendent of slaves, She told him that she had heard from her grandparents how quilts were used as signals to the run-aways. They would be hung on the clothes line or draped over a split rail fence and their patterns meant either safety or danger. The historian wrote a book about the story.  As time went on Ozella told her niece other bits of "information" that went into the story.  This was a very appealing story which soon made it's way into children's books and even on the Ophra Winfrey show. 

And soon somewhat less gullible historians began to collate the stories are they had proliferated and  punched holes in the whole concept.  For instance the bear paw quilt was said to indicate that the run-aways shoud go over the Appalachain mountains, watching for bear paw prints and follow them because bears always knew where there were nuritious berries and fresh water.  The first problem is that no underground railroad trail ran over the mountains and no one in their right mind would get very close to a bear.  Other stories told of various ways a log cabin quilt could indicate safety or danger, depending upon whether the central squares  of a log cabin designed quilt were red or black and whether the lighter side of the various log cabin squares was "Up" or "down".  However the quilts are geometrically equal so equal numbers of dark and light squares are up or down.  And so it went.  In fact, the whole idea of quilt code was ironically disparaged by subsequent quilt historians. 

That's too bad because I had managed to implant a false memory in my own  recollections, thinking that way back in highschool history when I learned of the underground railroad I believed I had also learned about the quilt code.  But I did not; it did not even exist at that time.

Just one of the fascinating things I have learned about quilt history as I've been researching in order to tell my class about it.  To teach is to learn ... true, true, true.


barbara judge said...

June -- So glad you mention the myth about the underground railroad quilts being used as trail markers north for escaping slaves. Unfortunately many museums still perpetuate the myth. There is one museum in KY that made a large mural on their grounds depicting this myth. When I left KY it was still there! Good post. -- barbara

June Calender said...

Thanks, Barbara. I fully beleived the myth and didn't realize it wasn't a part of the underground railroad history I learned in school.