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

Quilts and the Underground Railroad Revisited: 
 Interview with Historian Giles R. Wright
by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

Many of us in the quilting community want to provide to quilters, students, teachers, the popular press, quilt shop owners and authors credible historical information about the Underground Railroad and the code story described in Hidden in Plain View - the Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (HIPV). This is the purpose of this interview . We encourage those groups mentioned above to discuss, teach, and write about this aspect of American history, providing equal time and attention to the information presented here and elsewhere that contradicts the HIPV thesis.

The following interview with historian Giles R. Wright discusses the UGRR and how his understanding of it differs from the information presented in HIPV.
Photo from Wright's' pamphlet: 
Steal Away, Steal Away "
A Guide to the Underground Railroad
in New Jersey

Used with permission from author. 

I have asked questions that address the issues important to the book's thesis that quilts communicated messages to slaves seeking freedom via the UGRR. The UGRR was a network of people and places that assisted southern slaves to escape to free states in the North and Canada prior to the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Terms used in this interview:  

  • UGRR - The Underground Railroad, a figurative name for escape routes used by southern slaves who ran away and headed for states in the North and Canada.

  • Conductors and Stationmasters - UGRR terms. These people provided UGRR fugitives with food, shelter, money, clothing, and information, thereby facilitating their escape. A conductor guided fugitive slaves to a UGRR station. A station master allowed his/her residence to be used as a UGRR station. In this interview, their names are linked to additional information about their role on the UGRR and in America's history. 

  • HIPV - The book "Hidden in Plain View - the Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad," by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Ph.D., Doubleday, 1999.

  • The Quilt Code - Refers to the basic story of HIPV that states that particular quilt block patterns and tied knot arrangements served as coded messages that guided UGRR fugitives fleeing Charleston, South Carolina, en route to Cleveland, Ohio, and then on to Canada. It is briefly described in this interview for those who have not read the book.

Kim: Let's begin this interview with information about your background as it pertains to your present interest in the UGRR.

Giles: As a student of the black American historical experience, I of course over time acquired a general understanding of the Underground Railroad, what it was and its significance. In early 2000, however, I began to research the operation of the UGRR in New Jersey. This led me to deepen my understanding of the UGRR, both nationally and in New Jersey.

UGRR Facts

Kim: The existence and purpose of the UGRR is an accepted fact by all American historians, correct?

Giles: I know of no American historian who disputes the existence of the Underground Railroad. The documentation for its existence is overwhelming at so many levels. For example, one can refer to the oral traditions found in many local communities, or the biographies and autobiographies of UGRR operatives, or such classic early UGRR studies as William Still's The Underground Railroad, published in 1872, and Wilbur Siebert's The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom, published in 1898, or the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which sought to thwart the UGRR's operation.

Kim: What were the years the UGRR was in operation and what geographic regions were included in it?

Giles: While from the outset American slaves used running away as a form of resistance to their bondage, the UGRR, which continued this tradition, operated roughly between 1830 and 1861. Given its name, we know that it begins after the introduction of trains in this country, which occurs around 1829; it stops basically with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. UGRR stations were concentrated mainly in the North, covering New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and states of the mid-West such as Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The border states were also part of the UGRR. Delaware had a well-organized UGRR network; Thomas Garrett was its most celebrated operative. Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, the other border states, had fewer UGRR stations. The slave states of Virginia and North Carolina had even fewer UGRR operatives. Finally, it should be noted that the UGRR also operated in Kansas, where a bloody struggle occurred between proslavery and antislavery forces, most of the former coming in from neighboring Missouri. This struggle resulted from the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had restricted slavery to certain areas, and introduced the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," which said in effect that states carved out of the Great Plains territory were to each decide through popular vote whether they would be slave or free as they entered the union. The legendary John Brown participated in the fight in Kansas over the issue of slavery.

Kim: When did the secret network consisting of anti-slavery people or abolitionists, known as conductors and station masters who operated safe houses and directed slaves, become known as the UGRR?

Giles: It is difficult to say precisely when and where the term "Underground Railroad" was first used, as well and where the terms associated with the UGRR like "conductor" and "station master" first came into being. In all probability these terms surfaced sometime during the 1830s.

Kim: Is there historical record of UGRR routes and methods?

Giles: There is indeed documentation regarding UGRR routes and how the network was operated. In the aforementioned book by Siebert one can find such documentation.

Kim: How did individual slaves decide when, where, and how to escape on the UGRR to freedom?

Giles: Decisions by slaves to abscond and head north to freedom varied considerably. Sometimes such decisions were made well in advance of the actual flight by the runaways. Sometimes the decision to flee was made on the spur of the moment, occasioned by an unexpected turn of events. For example, a slave might strike his owner in responding to punishment and decide he has to run away to avoid additional punishment. Or he might learn that his owner is away on business and decide that the absence of his owner made for a convenient time to flee.

Kim: Did slaves escape without the help of the routes established by the UGRR?

Giles: Some slaves ran away not knowing of the UGRR. Others did know. Runaways were assisted in the South for the most part by fellow slaves and free blacks. Once they reached the northern states, they were assisted by the UGRR network.

Kim: Did the slaves travel during the day or night? How did they know if a house was safe?

Giles: Runaway slaves generally traveled at night. Many made use of the North Star. A conductor could lead the runaways to an UGRR station or others involved with the UGRR could tell them about the existence of such a place. Sometimes safe houses were marked or identified in particular ways. For example, in Ann Hagedorn's Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, published in 2002, one finds a reference to the manner in which the famed station master Rev. John Rankin of Ripley, Ohio, identified his house as a UGRR station. He used a lantern in a front window. Since his house was located high on a hill overlooking the Ohio River, which separates Ohio from Kentucky, the lantern could be seen by runaways along the Kentucky shore.

UGRR and Quilts with secret codes for Slaves

Kim: Previous to the publication of HIPV, had you ever read or heard about the concept of quilts having a secret code, known only to slaves, imbedded in their colors, patterns, knots or stitches, with information about escaping on the UGRR? Have you read or heard any information that supports this particular idea since the publication?

Giles: Prior to HIPV's publication, I had never heard of quilts being used by slaves to send coded messages to prospective UGRR runaways. And since HIPV's publication, I have come across nothing that supports the thesis put forth in this book.

Kim: What percentage of historians and professors of black American history do you estimate believe that quilts were used as symbols for escape information to slaves on the UGRR?

Giles: This question is difficult to answer. I would have no way of knowing what those teaching African American history as a group think about the argument found in HIPV. What I can say is that I have discussed this book with my friends who are historians-my colleagues. Not one accepts its argument. Let me add that I think it would be hard for any historian to support HIPV simply because it offers no adequate documentation for its claim that quilts were used to convey coded messages to UGRR fugitives. Historians operate on the basis of documentation. If you assert something is true, then you have to offer compelling evidence or proof for what is asserted. It's as simple as that.

Kim: To your knowledge, has one *thesis of HIPV and/or the ensuing controversy  been discussed at any professional conferences you have attended, before or after the publication of HIPV in 1999? If so, who spoke to it, what was discussed, and what conclusions, if any, were drawn? ( *The thesis - that quilt patterns, knots, colors or stitches were used as mnemonic devices or cues.)

Giles: I know of no history conference where HIPV has been discussed.

"The Quilt Code" introduced in the book Hidden in Plain View

Kim: It has been about three years since your presentation to the Camden County Historical Society. You were asked to lecture about the UGRR and how its history agrees with or differs from the thesis put forth in HIPV, which discusses slaves from Charleston, South Carolina, fleeing to Canada.

For those who may not have read the book by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Ph.D., I will briefly summarize the quilt code they write about in HIPV. To do so, I quote from from a book review written by Angela Dodson for Essence Magazine in February 1999, and HIPV.

 Angela Dodson in her review, summarizes Ozella McDaniel Williams's description of a secret quilt code called "the Charleston code."  The code of the quilts "relied on an arrangement of symbols and mnemonic [or memory] devices to describe and map out an escape route. The authors believe that if an escape was planned, quilts using the Charleston code were hung on a line in succession to describe a route all the way to Canada." There were ten different designs and ten different quilts, with a "specific pattern of knots" used in the code. "The first quilt in the code, 'the monkey wrench,' was a signal for the would-be escapes" to gather the tools they would need for their escape. "Tumbling blocks or tumbling boxes (boxes for packing up) told them it was time to go." This was the last quilt design a slave would see hanging on a line. Slaves could see all ten" full size quilts" hanging on lines, giving them the opportunity to be told what to do, where, when and how, and plenty of time to "memorize and carry out the instructions. Each quilt was possibly left out until all those who were making the trip could finish the necessary preparations." Then another quilt in the sequence was hung, followed by another, until all ten had been displayed, Dodson writes.

Since the book's publication, most attention and discussion is about the quilt block patterns than the knots and their placement in the quilt. In the Essence review and HIPV, the knots are discussed in some detail. Angela Dodson writes "The 'grid' of stitches, twine knots two inches apart on the quilts, may have acted as a map with a scale correlating to known distances between safe houses up north. The number of knots also had meaning, increasing from one on the first quilt to five on the final quilts. Five knots, in all likelihood, signaled that it was time for the slaves to escape." Ozella Williams, in HIPV, tells the reader that the knots were likely made of hemp, because it would be easier to see.

Tobin and Dobard write "The utilitarian or plain quilts would have been the ideal quilt to use, because the quilting thread was most likely a strong heavy thread." They suggest that plain or utilitarian quilts, rather than "fancy geometric patterns" were the ideal quilts to use as messengers. Doesn't this directly contradict their theory that ten fancy geometric patterns were used as symbols of the code: bear's paw, drunkard's path, shoofly, monkey wrench, crossroads, bowtie, wagon wheel, flying geese, double wedding ring, and log cabin? (Coincidently, the presence of these geometric quilt block patterns, in any pre-Civil War quilts, have yet to be documented by anyone.) 

Giles, from your viewpoint as an historian, not a quilter, what in the code story rings true or false and why?

Giles: I am not equipped to comment on the validity or accuracy of the information put forth in HIPV that pertains to the history of quilts. I leave that to quilt historians. What I will do, however, is offer an additional criticism of the book, a point not made in my initial critique. I am prepared to offer new criticisms of HIPV. I will limit myself to one for this interview. It has to do with the quilts as mnemonic devices.

First of all, mnemonic devices are used to effect recall, to jar one's memory. They are used to learn or memorize a body of information and then used later to recall such information. The process involving mnemonic devices is therefore two-fold: an initial stage of memorization and a later stage of recalling that which was memorized initially. Thus, for the quilts to be used properly as mnemonic devices for guiding fugitive slaves it would be necessary to set the quilts apart at intervals along the Charleston-Cleveland journey. In this way, if the runaway slaves forgot a code that was learned initially in Charleston, seeing the quilts again along the journey-as mnemonic devices-would jar their memory. But this differs from the manner in which the HIPV suggests the quilts were used as mnemonic devices. HIPV says the quilts were first hung on fences in Charleston, then the slaves learned the coded message from each quilt when it was hung (presumably over a period of time), and then finally, once all of the quilts had been hung and the coded messages learned, the slaves ran away. HIPV therefore suggests that the mnemonic devices in this case-the quilts-were seen once, memorized, and never seen again. This is a very strange and odd way to use mnemonic devices; it defies the logical two-fold process that governs their use. For example, what happened if the runaways forgot the code 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles or 400 miles on the way to Cleveland from Charleston? They would find nothing between the two cities to jar their memory of what had been learned or memorized.

Current Thinking about the UGRR and the Secret Quilt Code

Kim: Tell us what you have learned since writing Steal Away, Steal Away: A Guide to the Underground Railroad in New Jersey, published in 2002.

Giles: Historians, through new and fresh research efforts, are constantly revising how the past should be viewed and understood. As an example of this point, I have in mind three biographies of Harriet Tubman that have been published recently. They are Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, by Jean M. Humez; Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, by Kate Clifford Larson; and Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton. I have read these books and through them I have a much better sense of Tubman, who she was an individual, and her life and times. Her friendships with such UGRR operatives as William Still and Lucretia Mott and the famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth are explored. Also, some of what we have believed about Tubman, for example, that she rescued about 300 slaves, appears to be untrue; the number of persons she guided to freedom seems to be smaller. Moreover, from these studies we learn that Tubman was a quilter. She took one of her prized quilts along when she ran away and gave it to a white lady who assisted her during the first leg of her journey.

Let me add that these books do not address the claim set forth in HIPV. Clinton's book in its Preface, however, does note the following:

For the most part, the life of Harriet Tubman has been confined to the storybook world of "following the drinking gourd" and freedom quilts. These accounts are more folkloric than analytical, more riddled with inaccuracies than concerned with historical facts.

Kim: There is a block named "crossroads" in HIPV's code. It offers the town of Cleveland, Ohio, as a place where important UGRR routes converged. Housing, food, and help were available there. Would slaves fleeing for their lives and freedom head west to Cleveland from the coastal town of Charleston, South Carolina, which included walking over the Appalachian Mountains? Was there another "crossroads" of significance located along the eastern routes taking the slaves directly north to avoid mountain terrain?

Giles: I questioned the existence of a Charleston-Cleveland UGRR route in my critique of HIPV. I have never seen, nor do I know of anyone who has seen, an Underground Railroad map showing a connection between Charleston and Cleveland. I don't think such a map exists. In fact, the most important map in Siebert's book-the map is titled, "Underground Routes to Canada, Showing the Lines of Travel of Fugitive Slaves," shows no route coming out of the South crossing the Appalachian Mountains and leading into Cleveland. And Siebert's map is perhaps the first published map ever to show UGRR routes as they existed on a national scale. I'd like the co-authors of HIPV to produce a UGRR map showing a Charleston-Cleveland route. Even the UGRR map in HIPV shows no such connection. Moreover, I think HIPV overstates the importance of Cleveland as a center of UGRR activity. There is not even a well-known UGRR operative associated with Cleveland. Cities such as Cincinnati, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington, Delaware, Buffalo, and New York City are mentioned more often in the UGRR literature. And some of these cities, for example Philadelphia, were places where UGRR routes converged as they did in Cleveland. I therefore think the term "crossroads" should not apply to these cities, since it suggests movement or traffic in a kind of crisscross manner or pattern, which was not the case.

Kim: In the time preceding the Civil War, there were black people who betrayed the trust of those engaged in antislavery activities, including the UGRR. For example, they would inform on some of the courageous abolitionists who served as station masters and conductors. This being the case, why wouldn't they be able to learn about the quilt code and then work to negate or undermine its use?

Giles: I believe there are many questions that can be raised, or have been raised, about the alleged coded quilts being detected by those unsympathetic to black freedom. I don't think the co-authors have addressed such questions. I think the strong possibility of detection seriously adds to the implausibility of HIPV's quilt code.

Kim: Assuming, for the sake of this interview, the code story is true, it occurs to me that slave owners would not see these messages as a threat, since most of the ideas conveyed were of a very simple nature, containing insignificant information. For example, the code states that when the fifth knot on the tenth quilt was displayed the slaves were to leave. In the code, each of the ten quilts were hung sequentially on a line for some time, so figuring out when a slave would leave would be possible to perceive by anyone knowing the code. It seems unrealistic that no slave would actually leave until the fifth knot, on the tenth quilt was displayed. How safe would they be to leave at the sight of that knot rather than at an undetermined private time. 

Another example of the naiveté associated with this code is the symbolism attributed to a block pattern called "drunkard's path." The symbolism tells the slaves to run in a zigzag rather than a straight line. In my opinion, this insults the intelligence of the slaves. To run in a continuous zigzag pattern would waste their time and energy. Naturally, a runaway would walk, run or hide in the safest way under the circumstances at the time. Equally as insulting is the idea that slaves would have to be told to use the North star to help them navigate at night, as certainly they knew this already. Two other blocks, "shoofly" and "bowtie" instructed slaves to dress up in cotton and wear a bowtie before leaving. I wonder how many slaves had a closet of clothes to choose from?

Giles: I agree that what you have cited makes little sense. Also, regarding the point about walking in a zigzag manner, what about runaways who used other modes of transportation, for example, horses, wagons, boats, and trains.

Kim: What are your thoughts on the symbolism ascribed to the quilt patterns? Don't these appear demeaning and unnecessary?

Giles: I'll comment on this by saying that UGRR fugitives seemingly possessed a disproportionately high degree of intellect. Some in fact later wrote "slave narratives." These accounts of their lives as slaves were published. Perhaps the best known of such narratives was that of Frederick Douglass. His story was published initially in 1845 under the title of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Kim: Have you been contacted by Ms. Tobin or Dr. Dobard or have you tried to contact them, and if so, what happened?

Giles: I have not attempted to contact Tobin or Dobard. And I have not received personally any direct response from them regarding my critique of HIPV, preventing the kind of discourse that normally occurs when scholars hold opposing views on a subject. I don't believe Tobin and Dobard have responded anywhere to any of my criticisms of their work as outlined in my critique. While I think this is unfortunate, given HIPV's serious weaknesses and flaws, I can really understand their reluctance to address the points raised in my critique. In fact, I don't think they can adequately refute my charges. For example, you certainly can't argue the existence of a Charleston-Cleveland migration route for black people at anytime in our history. I should point out, however, that what Tobin has done is to engage in a kind of an ad hominem attack, asserting that I had been prompted by others to prepare my critique of HIPV, and simultaneously injecting the matter of race into the debate over HIPV. Here I refer to a conversation Tobin had with a reporter last year during which she claimed that the only people who had questioned HIPV were "angry white quilters." When my name was offered as a critic who obviously didn't fit this category, she responded by saying that these "angry white quilters" prompted me to write my critique. Nothing could be further from the truth. My critique was prepared in 2000 as a handout for New Jersey audiences attending my lectures on the UGRR. At one such lecture, given in 2001 in Camden, New Jersey, for the Camden County Historical Society, a person in the audience received my handout and subsequently, with my permission, posted it on the society's Web site, allowing it to be read by a much wider audience. In fact, I believe that it was through this Web site that you-Kim-came across my critique and shortly thereafter initiated contact with me. I find Tobin's charge that some white quilters persuaded me to criticize HIPV wholly consistent with her practice, as evidenced in HIPV, of making unverifiable claims and assertions.

Kim: Is there anything else you would like to share with this audience?

Giles: Yes there is. And here I would like to level most of my criticism at Tobin, for it was she who received the secret code from Ozella McDaniel Williams and bears the major responsibility for putting it forth in the form of HIPV. In so doing, I feel that she has evidenced little respect for the study of the African American past. By this I mean that her treatment of Williams's story-her uncritical acceptance of it, is in a way offensive and insulting to all who take black history seriously, who believe you have to be properly trained to write a book or essay in this field. Tobin is bereft of training in African American history; teaching Women's Studies hardly qualifies her to write about the Underground Railroad. Since Tobin lacked expertise in the field of black history, she clearly lacked the capacity to adequately assess or evaluate the authenticity of the oral testimony she had received from Williams. Tobin therefore would have been better served by turning to historians expert in black history for counsel on the plausibility of the folklore received from Williams. Implicit in her failure to do this must be her thinking that anyone, whether possessing the proper credentials in African American history or not, can write about this discipline. Would she have treated any other people's history in such a way? The degree of hubris she has shown is astounding.

I feel strongly that Tobin and Dobard should cease dishonoring the precious heritage of the Underground Railroad and acknowledge that their claim-that Charleston slaves were induced by quilts with coded messages to runaway and head for Cleveland-is simply untenable. That the story offered in HIPV is untrue is grounded in the fact that it is in so many ways illogical, some of these ways having been identified by me.

Kim: Are there any well researched books you can recommend to students, the press or authors, who are seeking more current information?

Giles: I would suggest a reading of the three new biographies of Tubman that I mentioned earlier.

Kim: Thank you Giles for taking time with me to reflect again on a controversy that, while taking place primarily within the quilt community, certainly affects the credibility of the legacy of slavery and the UGRR in America's history.

Concluding Statement

Kim: I welcome to this Web site a response or statement from Jacqueline Tobin or Raymond Dobard regarding this interview. Their statement or response will not be edited or altered in any way. I also welcome any documented information about the use of a quilt pattern code or the use of knots and stitches to send messages to UGRR fugitives. Further, any factual information about the quilt block patterns named in the code being in existence in America during the antebellum period, as evidenced in such images as paintings or photographs, or described in diaries or books written at that time, are sought. Images of quilts, made during this time period, using the block patterns described,  will be put on-line if possible. To date, none have surfaced to my knowledge. Please contact me here, if you have a submission.

Those of us in the field of  quilt study want to know everything there is to know about quilt history. When compared to the study of American history, the study and research into quilt history is a blip on the screen. It has been difficult to glean facts, records and writings concerning women in the popular history. Digging into diaries, letters, town records, family Bibles and other personal records have brought much to light about the part women and their needlework played in American history. Quilts have spoken to us in their own way. In this, women and African-Americans have a lot in common. In fact, Sojourner Truth was the first to point out this connection.

Included in this quest for knowledge  is information regarding how the history of quilts has intersected with the history of the African American community.  Giles and I call upon all of you with shared concerns and interests to join us in discovering more about the nature of this intersection. In our discovery efforts, however, we must ensure that our work is informed by a commitment to accuracy and historical truth. The legacy of those quilters who have preceded us demands no less.

 Why don't we walk the road together, helping each other to discover our past?

New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, Copyright 2004 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD All Rights Reserved. No copies, reprinting, or use of any parts of this interview can be made, used, or excerpted without written consent from the author. 

Please use -- www.antiquequiltdating.com/ugrrwrightinterview.html -- for linking to or emailing this interview. 

Other UGRR pages on my site:

- Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America
- "The Use of Quilts as Messengers on the Underground Railroad"
- Giles R. Wright Critique of HIPV 


* The Myths of Quilts on the Underground Railroad

© 2005 - 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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