Underground Railroad Quilts: Fact or Fiction?

Quilt0403The legend of the Evening Star quilt pattern goes back to the Underground Railroad, a term used to describe the network of safe houses and secret routes by slaves in the South to escape to northern free states and Canada during the American Civil War.

Many believe that quilts were used to communicate secret messages, to help slaves along their flight.

Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard set out to discover the secret behind one such quilt, in their book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. The book tells the story of one woman and her family. Ozella McDaniel Williams’ family passed on an oral history that detailed how quilt patterns were used as directions for planning slaves’ escapes. Tobin and Dobard, a quilter and art historian, researched the story and found that to their knowledge, the story seemed legitimate.

The book was a huge success, making it to the Oprah Winfrey Show, museums, children’s textbooks and beyond. But it also sparked a backlash. Taking one family’s story and treating it as a universal fact of the Underground Railroad history was problematic, said critics. Giles Wright, an Underground Railroad expert, had this to say in a Time Magazine article on the subject: “The Underground Railroad is so rife with distortions and misinformation, and this is just one more instance when someone comes across folklore and assumes it’s true,” he says.

One renowned quilt historian, Barbara Brackman, has even written her own book to make matters clear. Facts and Fabrications; Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery presents her take on slavery, quilts and the Underground Railroad.

The vox populi remains generally accepting of the book and its tale, regardless of the ensuing critique. Time Magazine cited the following perspicacious reactions to the controversy:

[…] Women like Anna Lopez, the education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum, see no reason why the story of quilt codes can’t be fact. “What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?”

Roland Freeman, a civil rights activist and photographer who has been documenting African American quilters for nearly 30 years, has another take on why the story is so popular. “Hidden in Plain View is how we got over those white folks. Right under the nose of white folk we’re sending signs and symbols and they didn’t know it. While I think it’s so ridiculous, African Americans are starved for those kind of stories in our culture and we’re willing to accept it because it’s what we want to hear.” (Source)

Ultimately, the legitimacy of the Underground Railroad quilt code myths remains unclear. In the meantime, children all over the country continue to be exposed, perhaps for the first time, to the art of quilting and to the importance of the Underground Railroad through these stories.

Books mentioned:

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