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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Unraveling the History of QUILTS & SLAVERY

C&T Publishing, 2006

Ideas for Teaching

“Ideas for Teaching” is reprinted here with permission from Barbara

Ideas for Teaching

Many quilt shops and public school teachers are using the idea of quilts and the Underground Railroad as a way to teach the history of slavery. Numerous books for both children and adults suggest making quilt blocks that were code or signals for runaway slaves. The major problem is that the link between quilts and the underground railroad is false. The tale makes a great story but by perpetuating the story we are teaching our children false history.

Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery offers an effective and accurate history of the topic. Teachers using the blocks and the stories in the book can be confident that they can use quilts to present an honest account of this important chapter in America's story.

Using Facts & Fabrications in a Grade School Curriculum
Chapter 5 in the book, "Adapting The Sampler For Children," contains many ideas for using the blocks and stories with children as young as 5. It gives advice for choosing the simplest blocks and also offers step-by-step instructions for making an Underground Railroad doll quilt that can be used to teach young children to sew. Discussion Questions outline open-ended ideas for talking about quilts and history.

Using Facts & Fabrications in Quilt Shops
The book contains 20 blocks but gives complete instructions for sampler quilts made with 4, 5 or 12 blocks. Using twelve blocks, quilt teachers can offer a Block-of-the Month program in which quilters can learn about little-known aspects of American History. Using the 5-block setting, shops can offer a one-day workshop offering the book with packaged kits. Class time could also include instructions on choosing historically accurate fabrics. Here's a class description:

Quilts & Slavery: Unraveling the Story

Use quilt blocks to symbolize chapters in the story of slavery as we spend the day piecing blocks for a small sampler and talking about the this important chapter in American history. Class text will be historian Barbara Brackman's new book Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery.

You'll want to kit a Block of the Month, so pick 12 blocks and kit them up in one or more of these fabric themes:

  • Woven plaids, stripes & other "checkedy" cloths—the fabric of slavery.
  • Civil War reproductions such as Civil War Anthem from Moda.
  • Black, red and natural-tan prints to symbolize black history, the passion and pain of the era, and cotton---slavery's economic foundation.

A description for your Block of the Month Program:

Quilts & Slavery: Unraveling the Story

Piece a series of 12 traditional quilt blocks for a sampler that tells an accurate history of American slavery. Blocks like Underground Railroad, Catch Me if You Can and Slave Chain symbolize chapters in the story. Kits link to patterns in historian Barbara Brackman's new book Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery.

Additional Teaching Ideas
Teachers may want to go beyond the stories and the quilt blocks in the book and add other ideas to the class. One easy way to obtain more information is to use the recommended web pages as resources.

Use the quilt code controversy to create interest and clear the air.
Nearly every quilter has heard the story. Build your class promotion around the idea that you will look at both sides of the issue and give your reasons for disputing the code/map link. A suggested description:

The Quilt Code: Unraveling the Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad

Have you heard the story of quilts as code on the Underground Railroad, slavery's path to freedom? How accurate are those tales? We'll spend the class stitching quilt blocks that we can use to symbolize the story of quilts and slavery while we discuss the myths and the facts. Class text will be historian Barbara Brackman's new book Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery.

Use local history to create interest in the true stories.
While not every town has a link to the underground railroad, there are many, many local stories about slavery. With a little digging and a little help from your local historical society you can shape the class to reflect local history. A sample description:

Quilts and Slavery: Using Quilts to Tell an Ohio Story
(or a Michigan story etc.)

We'll use quilt blocks to symbolize some accurate stories about slavery in XX. While we stitch, we'll hear tales about how people used their wits and their courage to overcome slavery. Along with your sewing supplies, bring any stories you've heard about slavery and the underground railroad in our area. Class text will be historian Barbara Brackman's new book Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery.

Sources on the Web for Discussion of
the Underground Railroad and Quilts Controversy

Leigh Fellner has developed an extensive web page on the topic. http://www.ugrrquilt.hartcottagequilts.com/
or do a web search for: Hart Cottage Quilts.

Dr. Kimberly Wulfert's comprehensive quilt history web page has an impressive section.

Librarian Deborah Foley has written a paper summarizing the problems. Find "Young Readers at Risk: Quilt Patterns and the Underground Railroad" at
or do a web search for the three words: "Deborah Foley" readers

If you feel compelled to make an underground railroad map quilt go to: www.ohioundergroundrailroad.org/quilt.htm. The Columbus Metropolitan Quilters (CMQ) Guild created a fabulous quilt rendition of an old Underground Railroad map indicating counties, trails and stations. The quilt was presented to the Friends of Freedom in 1997. Now that's a historically accurate underground railroad quilt.

Sources for Accurate Information about the Underground Railroad

The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom is a web page maintained by the National Park Department. Try this address:
or do a search for the words: Underground Railroad Network Freedom

Documenting the South: North American Slave Narratives. A good site for first hand documents about slavery. Try this address: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/index.html
or do a search for the words: Documenting Slave Narratives

American Memory is the Library of Congress web page. Go to the home page at the following address http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html
or search for the words: American Memory.  Once you're there you'll see a search box at the top. Type in the words: Slavery Florida or try Life History Kansas (substituting your state). One of the great things about the Library of Congress is that you may use their pictures, stories etc. Print the pictures and the stories and use them as handouts.

Reprinted with permission from Barbara Brackman

Fact Sheet on The "Quilt Code"

More on the book by Barbara Brackman:

"Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the Story of Quilts & Slavery"

Other articles on the Underground Railroad on my site.


* The Myths of Quilts on the Underground Railroad

© 2006 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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