Did escaping slaves fleeing from the South in the pre-Civil War era use secret codes woven into quilts to communicate with each other and guide them on their journey? That is the premise of the quilt-code theory, first popularized in a 1998 book written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad
. A National Geographic article from 2004
elaborates on the theory:
A plantation seamstress would sew a sampler quilt containing different quilt patterns. Slaves would use the sampler to memorize the code. The seamstress then sewed ten quilts, each composed of one of the code's patterns. The seamstress would hang the quilts in full view one at a time, allowing the slaves to reinforce their memory of the pattern and its associated meaning. When slaves made their escape, they used their memory of the quilts as a mnemonic device to guide them safely along their journey.
Apparently a wrench pattern meant "gather your tools and get physically and mentally prepared to escape the plantation." A bear's paw meant "head north over the Appalachian Mountains." A tumbling blocks pattern meant "pack up and go." A bow tie pattern meant "to dress up or disguise themselves."
However, many historians dispute the existence of such a code, arguing that there's little evidence it ever existed or was used. The principal evidence for it comes from oral tradition, such as the testimony of a woman named Ozella McDaniel, who was a descendant of slaves, and told the story to Tobin and Dodard. She claimed the secret had been passed down from one generation to the next, without ever being written down.
A recent article in the Omaha World-Herald
summarizes some of the arguments of quilt-code skeptics:
Quilt historians believe that the quilt connection to the Underground Railroad is a myth or folktale, and may even be a hoax concocted by a woman who sold quilts.
"So many people are buying into it because it's such a great story," said Sheila Green, chairwoman of education for the Nebraska State Quilt Guild. "It is just a story."
Green said quilt historians note that some of the quilt patterns said to have been part of the "code" to guide fleeing slaves did not even exist in the 1800s. For example, the pattern known as the "bow tie" - which some say told escaping slaves to dress up or disguise themselves - was not found in print until 1956. Kathy Moore, a quilt historian who lives in Lincoln, said it is possible that someone quilted that design before 1956 but that it did not have a name.
"It's the names that tell the story," she said. "This story is a myth that borders on a hoax."
Moore also said one must consider that fugitive slaves traveled at night and wouldn't have gotten close enough to a house to see the pattern of a quilt hanging on a clothesline or porch rail.
I don't know enough about the issue to form an opinion about whether or not the quilt code was real. I've never even read Tobin and Dodard's book. However, it does remind me of a few other secret-code theories covered on the MoH, such as the hanky code
(which apparently is real), and powerline codes
(which probably aren't real).