A hot topic in Black History is the story of
quilts and the Underground Railroad. Americans eager to
discuss slavery are fascinated by tales of quilts used as
signals in the dangerous journey to freedom. The connection
between an American folk art, a mysterious secret code and the
adventure of the Underground Railroad has created an enduring
tale that is fast becoming a part of American legend. The quilt
code has joined other appealing but false stories like George
Washington chopping down a cherry tree or Betsy Ross designing
the first American flag.
Countless school curriculums include how-to instructions for a
quilt made in the secret code. Museums feature symbolic quilts
in exhibits dedicated to slavery. Historians often are asked
¨ Is it true that quilts
were hung on clotheslines to signal escaping slaves of a
¨ Were quilts read as maps
to tell escapees the route to safety?
¨ Did runaways use quilt
patterns with names like the Double Wedding Ring or the
Drunkard's Path as code to communicate escape plans?
The fact is that we have
no historical evidence of quilts being used as signals, codes or
maps. The tale of quilts and the Underground Railroad makes a
good story, but not good quilt history.
¨ The Double Wedding Ring,
Sunbonnet Sue and most of the other quilt patterns supposedly
used as code did not exist before the Civil War.
¨ While escaped slaves
recorded signals such as whistles, songs and lanterns as useful
in communicating on the run, absolutely no first person accounts
of using quilts as signals exist.
¨ Women in slavery made
quilts; we have much historical evidence and many surviving
quilts. People remembered using quilts in escapes, but they were
used to warm fugitives or protect them from view. They did not
serve as code.
What harm can a charming yet false story do? You be the judge.
But do realize that we are teaching a generation of
children false history. And by focusing on this connection we
ignore our national obligation to learn about the true and less
charming stories of slavery.
Feel free to photocopy this sheet to help spread the truth about
Barbara Brackman 2006
Author of Facts &
Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts