So how did the underground railroad quilt code end up on a statue of Frederick Douglass?
Column by Leigh Fellner
Noted quilter, lecturer, writer and researcher Leigh Fellner presents an overview of a controversy which has evolved in the past eight years involving assertions that coded quilts were used to help escaping African-American slaves prior to the Civil War. For those not familiar with the myth or who want to know more, here are the facts and you can decide. Meme [‘mem] An idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.
Ask anyone you know about quilts in American history, and odds are you will hear that in the first half of the 19th century, encoded quilts were used to help African-Americans escape north from slavery to freedom. You might be told no concrete evidence of an Underground Railroad Quilt Code has ever been found. But you are unlikely to hear that all the evidence argues against even the theory such a system either did exist, or needed to. The Quilt Code includes patterns known to have originated in the 20th century.
It contains messages that either have nothing to do with escaping, tells fugitives to do things that would put them in danger, or are so obvious as to be insulting. Most fugitives headed south, not north; most traveled alone; few planned their escapes; and even fewer were assisted by the Underground Railroad. And neither quilts nor the circuitous route the Code describes appear in any first-person fugitive or Underground Railroad account, or indeed anywhere at all until the late 20th century.
The Code is so ahistorical that for years after the 1999 publication of Hidden in Plain View, much of the academic community dismissed it as harmless nonsense to which a scholarly response would only lend a sort of legitimacy. In the quilt world, some worried that doubting the story’s veracity or the authors’ scholarship would distress its proponents, who were often described as pleasant and well-meaning. One white quilter likely spoke for many when, mistakenly presuming both a widespread embrace of the Code by blacks and a dearth of recorded African-American history, she wrote me that “maybe they just need something to cling to”.
(In fact, most of those promoting the Code – and profiting from it – are white; Quilt Code Museum owner Teresa Kemp has complained that few of her visitors are African-American.) Virtually uncontested, within a year of HIPV’s publication the Quilt Code had become a common feature in teaching guides for Black History Month.
In 2005, Ohio school board members commissioned a giant Code mural for their new high school.
In 2007, the City of New York announced that over the objections of historians (including Douglass biographer David Blight, director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition) the Quit Code would be featured on a $15M, taxpayer-funded Central Park monument to abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.
The project historian had simply assumed the Code was documented fact. (The design is under review; revision of the monument would require a complete overhaul.) It is impossible to understand how the Code was so quickly transformed from meme into monument without knowing its historic context. It is often referred to as “old,” but in five years of research, the earliest mention I have found of quilts-as-signals is in Hearts and Hands: , a feminist video about women and quilts: “They say quilts were hung on the clotheslines to signal a house was safe for runaway slaves.” Neither the companion book nor the filmmakers’ original notes mentions this.
In 1989, folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry elaborated, adding color: “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)…” Two years later, warning that many stories about quilts are the product of “overactive imaginations,” quilt historian Cuesta Benberry related: “A story, as yet undocumented, tells of quilts in the “Jacob’s Ladder” pattern (renamed “Underground Railroad”) hung outside houses as a signal to passengers on the Underground Railroad that the homes were safe havens for the fearful travelers.” Neither Fry nor Benberry gives a source, and quilt historian Barbara Brackman says no antebellum examples of the Underground Railroad pattern are known to exist.
As interest in African-American quilts surged in the late 20th century, Jonathan Holstein (who in 1971 curated the first museum exhibition of quilts) observed that a mixture of fact, myth and speculation was “function[ing] as a dangerous substitute for missing history,” and had “led to some recent fiascos of scholarship.” Two years later, using the very methodology Benberry had decried as “myopic,” yet another folklorist – Maude Wahlman – claimed to find specific African “signs and symbols” that African-Americans had unwittingly stitched into their quilts.
Wahlman (who claims, contrary to evidence, that Euro-American quilts are historically “pastel”) gets her ideas about African textiles from modern examples that would have been unrecognizable to the Africans forcibly brought to America: one type was nonexistent before the 20th century; another is unique to a region whose people were never enslaved.
Likewise, 90% of Wahlman’s quilts date to after 1980; census records confirm quilt historian Julie Silber’s hunch that the maker of one of the few older examples was white. Wahlman suggests quilts may have been used as escape signals, but gives no details. HIPV author Jacqueline Tobin would later write that without Signs & Symbols, her own book “could not have been written.” Among the many children’s books linking quilts and the Underground Railroad is 1993’s Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, in which the title character escapes slavery using a quilt that is literally a map.
Its author, Deborah Hopkinson, says she was inspired by a National Public Radio interview with art quilter Elizabeth Scott. But NPR says the quilter was never even interviewed for that report, and I have found no record that Scott has ever mentioned quilts being used in connection with escape.
The claimed inspiration for “Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt” was a “radio interview” that never occurred. Shortly after Wahlman’s and Hopkinson’s books were published, writing instructor and former therapist Jacqueline Tobin was approached by Howard University alumna Ozella McDaniel Williams, then selling quilts in a Charleston, South Carolina tourist mall. “Did you know that quilts were used to help slaves escape on the Underground Railroad?” Williams asked.
When Tobin later phoned her for details, Williams refused to talk. After spending the next three years vainly searching for supporting evidence, Tobin returned to Charleston; after getting herself in the proper mood with a carriage ride, she approached Williams unannounced, and was rewarded with an enigmatic poem. Howard University art professor Raymond Dobard recalled that when Tobin breathlessly shared it with him, he declared it a “miracle.” “I think you’ve found what we’ve all been hoping to find, and that’s a real code.” The resulting book, Hidden In Plain View, was published after Williams’s death, and on Martin Luther King Day in 1999, Dobard was promoting it on Oprah.
(Tobin, who is white, was not invited; even her local quilt guilds passed her over in favor of Dobard.) To date the book has sold well over 200,000 copies. But the only historian to endorse it, a colleague of Dobard, carefully avoided saying it has any factual basis. In his introduction, Dobard openly admits to having turned scholarly methods on their ear by “present[ing] a theory before finding a wealth of tangible evidence,” and writes that the Quilt Code is “informed conjecture”. But he later he called skeptics “irritating.” Underground Railroad historian and Code critic Giles Wright (who is black) says Tobin accused him of being in thrall to “angry white quilters.” As discrepancies between the Quilt Code’s claims and documented history became increasingly obvious, the authors began to blame their readers for accepting its claims at face value.
Complained Tobin, “[P]eople have tried to push the book in directions that it was not meant for.” Indeed, Code proponents invariably point to HIPV as their authoritative source, although some add the disclaimer “some say no evidence exists”. But the problem is not simply that no evidence exists; it is that every aspect of both the Code and HIPV is deeply flawed. Only about a quarter of HIPV actually discusses Williams’s claims. Nearly as much space is devoted to several introductions, none of which was written by an historian, and indeed it appears no historian was ever consulted.
Tobin’s recent characterization of her book to Time Magazine is unintentionally revealing: “Whether or not [the Quilt Code story] is completely valid, I have no idea, but it makes sense with the amount of research we did.” A glance at the lengthy bibliography suggests that research was substantial – until the reader discovers the authors refer to only a quarter of those sources, and three are children’s books. The remainder includes more juvenile literature, poetry, and an adult “nonfiction” book claiming that the earth was populated by extraterrestrials. The more plausible sources bear no visible relation to the authors’ conclusions.
More than once, texts are misconstrued; in other cases, the authors choose a secondary source which supports their claim, rather than the original document which does not. (For example, the authors cite historical novelist Henrietta Buckmaster as evidence of a number/name/city code used by abolitionist Alexander Ross (e.g., “Midnight” for Detroit) – a code that appears nowhere in Ross’s own, detailed memoirs; all evidence is that it originated in Buckmaster’s imagination.) No antebellum quilts are pictured because “there was no time,” explained Tobin.
Nor were they “trying to be accurate as to the date of the quilts shown”, since the book was “written for the average, non quilter, not the quilt historian.” Williams and her nieces, Serena Wilson and Wilson’s daughter Teresa Kemp, all claim to have learned the Code from Williams’s mother and grandmother. But the Codes they relate are so materially different, and Wilson and Kemp’s versions so fluid, it is hard to attribute the story to family tradition. Contradicting Hearts and Hands, Fry, and Benberry, Williams emphasized that quilts were never displayed along the escape route as signals.
But her nieces Wilson and Kemp insist they were, and now add that quilts were also carried along the journey as maps. Where the three are consistent is in including 20th century quilt patterns in their Codes – albeit with different messages. Wilson says the Dresden Plate pattern tells fugitives to “look for a church with Dresden Plate windows in [Niagara Falls] Canada.” HIPV also includes Dresden Plate in the Code. But Tobin later claimed the word “Dresden” referred to Dresden, Ohio and Dresden, Ontario and had “nothing to do with the quilt block”. She blamed her editors for the inclusion – even though the pattern was illustrated by a photo provided by coauthor Dobard, who himself sewed the block.
Other 20th century patterns Wilson and Kemp include are Cathedral Windows and Sunbonnet Sue; another lecturer includes butterflies. The authors never question Williams’s claim a Code existed, but when she includes the Depression-era Double Wedding Ring pattern, they doubt her recollection, speculating that it was another pattern, or not a quilt pattern at all – maybe the ringing of bells. Perhaps, they write, the “cathedral church” it refers to wasn’t an actual church, but a cave or a cemetery, or not an actual place.
When questioned further, Williams discarded her original claim that the pattern told fugitives to stop within sight of the Canadian border, get dressed up, and marry in a cathedral. Instead, it might tell them to get their “slave rings” cut off in a church, where the stained glass windows would keep people from seeing what was happening inside. Her niece says it simply meant “when you are free you can get married.” Meanwhile, Kentuckian Clarisse Boswell, the only other individual to claim the Code as family history, says that to indicate it was a safe house, as a church rang its bells at noontime it would hang a Double Wedding Ring quilt from its steeple.
For its messages to be of any use to fugitives literally running for their lives, the Code must be unambiguous. Instead, it is incoherent. Attributed to the Log Cabin pattern alone are “shelter available,” “I need help”, “the Canadian government will give you land” (no record of such a program exists), “dig a log cabin in Cleveland,” and “the amount of time it would take to build a log cabin.” Two lecturers say the Log Cabin quilt was a map in which blocks with red centers indicated either safe houses or a warning to keep away.
Boswell says the block was “invented” by Susan B. Anthony, who hung a quilt in her window if the house was safe and her father, “who opposed abolition,” was absent. (Anthony’s father was actually a prominent abolitionist.) One claims that depending on whether the “light ends” [sic] of the pattern were up or down, it instructed fugitives to leave either at sunup or sundown; another says it indicated the direction of travel.
The Log Cabin appears in all 17 current versions of the Code, yet Brackman and Virginia Gunn trace the pattern’s origin to the Civil War which put an end to the Underground Railroad’s operations.
HIPV says that this Dresden Plate block was “made and photographed” by author Dobard. Coauthor Tobin now says the block “had nothing to do” with the Quilt Code.
A Photoshopped depiction of how one “Code” proponent claims churches signaled they were a secret hideaway (with bells ringing, at noontime).
The variety of 19th century Log Cabin quilts is surpassed only by the number of claims made about the message this pattern sent. A report of one of Boswell’s Code lectures describes her telling “stories of her family’s enslavement, escape, and success at finding freedom.” But in Lizzie’s Story, Boswell writes that although they had third-hand knowledge of the Code, her ancestors never tried to escape, and that until 1880 her great-grandmother remained on the same plantation with the former master who had raped her a decade earlier.
Hidden in Plain View says simply that Williams learned the Code from her grandmother, but her nieces offer details: Williams’s grandmother, Eliza Farrow, brought the Code from Africa “in the early 1800s” and as an adult, traveled through Georgia and South Carolina with her husband Peter, teaching the Code to potential fugitives. But decades of census records indicate the couple were born in Georgia, to Georgia natives, around 1859; they were only children when the Underground Railroad ceased operating.
If Eliza could not have used the Code as her descendants claim, if the Code includes 20th century patterns, and if it contradicts everything historians know about quilts, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, how credible is anything about the story Williams told customer Tobin? Is there even any evidence it is indeed “family oral history”? Perhaps the answer is in the “written first hand evidence” Kemp claims to have at her museum.
But that evidence is not on display, and she refuses to show it even to sympathetic individuals, stating that she “does not owe historians anything”. Kemp, who recently announced that European Jews used quilts to warn of approaching Nazis (which came as news to Holocaust Museum historians), blames the Daughters of the Confederacy for skepticism about the Quilt Code. “There are people,” Kemp wrote me in 2004, “who do not believe in Jesus, or that people have been to the moon.”
The only photo we were allowed to take of the “Code” museum. About the Author About the author: Leigh Fellner’s articles on quilt history, and some of the more than 500 miniature quilts she has made since 1998, have appeared in national magazines including Traditional Quiltworks, Country Quilts, and Unlimited Possibilities Magazine for Machine Quilters. She collects 19th and early 20th century printed cotton fabrics, lectures on quilt history and the Underground Railroad Quilt Code myth, and is currently researching 19th century West African textiles and early Ohio Valley linsey quilts.
Her full research on the Quilt Code, including a bibliography and links to additional information, is available online at www.ugrrquilt.hartcottagequilts.com, where readers may also download the site in book format as well as a 2-page FAQs sheet. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.