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

The Underground Railroad
and the Use of Quilts as Messengers for Fleeing Slaves
by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

To many of us, the use of quilts as messengers on the Underground Railroad (UGRR) is a myth. It cannot be proven through recorded historical documents or defendable oral history. It is a concept that seemed to descend on the quilt world in the late 1990s, following the publication of, "Hidden in Plain View" (HIPV), written by two professors: J. Tobin and R. Dobard, PhD. In this book, Tobin and Dobard relate a story about this topic, based on the words of a woman who spoke to Ms. Tobin in the early 1990s. The woman said it was a secret and orally passed-down bit of black history, but a true fact, that quilts were made in certain colors and patterns in order to give directions, in a broad sense, to the slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad. She said the quilts hung on the porches and drying lines of sympathetic houses along the figurative underground railroad.

Tobin and Dobard relayed this story in their 1998 book, which did not come out until a short time after the woman's death. Yet, the 1998 publication was four years after Tobin was told the story in person by the woman, Ozella McDaniel Williams; she was the only provider of information upon which this book's story is based. Hence, since drawing conclusions of history, whether hard or soft, requires support from the literature -- and there is none found to date -- there has been an ongoing discussion of this use of quilts, ever since Tobin and Dobard's book came out.

The publication also paralleled the increasing requirements put on schools in the 1990s, to offer lessons in black history (a long overlooked aspect of our history). From the lower grades on up, students were learning about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, William Still, Frederick Douglass, Quaker Francis D. Pastorius (a Caucasian who, in 1688, was the first to write on anti-slavery in the Colonies), and other influential black Americans, in connection with the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery activities.

In 2001, a respected authority on the UGRR, Giles R. Wright, a Black American (which is the term he uses), did a critique of the book. He has graciously given me permission to discuss his critique and quote him for this article. In addition, he provided me a version of the critique newer than the one available on the Web.1 Mr. Wright states he is determined to dispense facts about the UGRR, since it is being distorted and misrepresented of late.

Giles R. Wright also authored, "Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History." 2 Mr. Wright is Director of the Afro-American History Program of the New Jersey Historical Commission, in Trenton, NJ. He conducted the most extensive research project ever done on New Jersey's UGRR heritage. This study was legislated and funded by New Jersey State legislators. Information was gathered with the help of historical societies in Ohio and New Jersey, libraries, Rutgers University, cultural heritage communities, and the like. From the cumulative research, the NJ Historical Commission published the booklet, "Steal Away…A Guide to the Underground Railroad in New Jersey," 3 written by Mr. Wright, and Edward Lama Wonkeryor (the coordinator of the project).

Regarding the use of quilts to send messages along the railroad, Wright told the Camden County Historical Society, in June 2001,4 the following about HIPV: It is "sheer conjecture and speculation that greatly misrepresents black history, it is nonsense and a perfect example of what those of us who are attempting to do serious Underground Railroad Research are up against." 

He believes the book has sold well because it is a very appealing idea. I would agree with him on this and note that the popularity appears to be amongst non-quilters and quiltmakers not particularly interested or knowledgeable about the history of quilts. I have had the same impression after talking to elementary school and quilt shop teachers. And, the women I have spoken with are good-intentioned. The schoolteachers think the children will enjoy learning about mid-19th Century Black History in America, and the period surrounding the Civil War, when 'messages in quilts' is the leading perspective. Classroom visuals are easy, children's books are readily available on the subject, and assignments to reproduce the patterns (as shown in the quilt books they use, HIPV, and children's books) are simple and fun to do, using crayons and paper or fabric.

Quilt shop teachers have the class ready-made for them when using the patterns identified in HIPV. Additionally, these blocks are easy enough for beginners and are readily available as pre-drafted patterns in many how-to quilt books available today.

With all the reproduction fabrics on the market today, it is a wise 'business' decision for quilt shop owners to add this class in their schedule. Some quilters will make this quilt, while feeling a sense of history, or at the least, a connection to America's past that they do not feel while making Stack & Whack or other popular contemporary quilts of today. They soak up the information presented in the book, as they cut those patterns in class, while reading it at home, or while watching one of the authors discuss it on TV talk shows. Some leave with a sense that they have tapped into quilt history, a subject that seems intimidating on the surface to casual observers. They are thrilled to make the inroad and feel a part of the past. After the fact, they do not want to give up this tie with quilt history (especially if they have made the quilt), or the myth that brought the feeling of connection around.

I find those who are less involved are more open to the other viewpoint. When discussing the book's story and its feasibility, I begin with suggesting this scenario: Imagine a slave, who remained hidden as much as possible to avoid capture, punishment, or death, running up the front porch steps of a stranger's house to get a close look at the quilt. Imagine the time it took to search and see encoded messages in the quilt stitches, patterns, colors, and then note which way the motifs are pointing, in order to tell which way they were supposed to turn next.

The usual response is something like, "and didn't they usually run after dark, too?," as they remember there were no porch lights or modern lighting products, such as flash lights. And it would be nearly impossible to see the idiosyncrasies of the quilt, much less the quilt itself, as they pass by, hidden in the deep brush or trees.

The next skeptical viewpoint I offer for consideration is that had this messaging system taken place over which would have been a span of 31 years (the period of time the UGRR was running), do they not think that other people would have figured it out? The UGRR began in 1830, as the rise of the anti-slavery movement took effect, following the start of railroad transportation in 1829. And industrial spies have been around at least since the late 18th Century, when American textile businessmen sent them over to England to memorize their equipment and industry methods, in order to replicate them here. Legitimate acquisition of this information was against the law, as England wanted to keep the Colonies under their control, by having them purchase all they needed from them. It seems quite likely there were 'pro-slavery' spies on the UGRR, befriending the Abolitionists, to get the inside dynamics used on the railroad that was facilitating the flight of slaves.

If they (those who are less involved) are not convinced by then, I tell them the quilt patterns described in the book have not been found to date back as far as the early 1800s. I add that Barbara Brackman, a well-known pattern historian and research scholar in quilts made in association with the period before and during the Civil War, has found no supporting evidence or information in her research. This includes many diaries written at the time.

I end with my impression that of the quilt historians I have met and/or know, via the Quilt History List on the Internet, and via the professional organization for the study of quilt history, the American Quilt Study Group, there is no doubt that their only agenda is the historical facts. Were there any solid facts on this topic, these people would be the first to embrace them and dispense them in their teachings and writings.

It is a win-win situation when new information on quilt history is uncovered. To this same end, Mr. Wright is conducting his research by requesting any information someone has about local sites, safe havens, or people who participated in the UGRR activities in NJ. He will give it to the Historical Commission to investigate and derive an accurate history of the slaves and the sites participating on the route. His research goal is not quilt related per se, but the book aroused so much attention, he took time to read and access it as well.

His critique is entitled "Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Code Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad."  Mr. Wright felt compelled to write it because the book, "gives those who know very little about Black American history in general, and the UGRR in particular, a distorted view of this form of slave protest." He found, "many factual errors, ones that would never be made by even a novice in the field of African-American history." He states three in this critique, not quilt related, but about historical facts known about the UGRR. These are presented to support his rejection of the authors' expertise to write a book on this topic.

One of the factual errors occurs on page 62 of HIPV and concerns George Rawick.5 The book states that, as part of a WPA project in the 1930s, he compiled oral history interviews from former slaves. In fact, Rawick, a well-known slave historian, was not born until 1929.

Another factual error occurs on page 73, where the authors state Josiah Henson founded the Dawn settlement in the early 1800s. In fact, he fled to Canada in 1830. He, along with others, purchased land in Dawn Township and established the vocational school for slaves in 1841, and in fact, Henson is regarded as founder of Dresdan, established 13 years after the Dawn settlement.

Like B. Brackman, Mr. Wright remarks on the lack of corroborating historical evidence, saying, "The book offers no documentation for its thesis, relying instead on sheer conjecture and speculation in its lack of fidelity to historical truth."

While he does not discount the value oral histories can offer, my understanding of his contention is that documented research should be provided before asserting what someone said in private is enough proof to assert changing our understanding of the dynamics of communication used on the UGRR.

Speaking as a former PhD student myself, it is drummed into our heads, via the courses and dissertation, to think critically in evaluating research findings, and to pay close attention to assertions put forth without the support of hard facts or time-tested material findings accepted as facts today. The dissertation hypothesis should be just on the other side (as in a thread's width) of the facts. If the facts are absent, the research results are categorized as unreliable, faulty, or exploratory. In HIPV's case, I believe my dissertation committee members would have referred to the findings as anecdotal at best, and unworthy of their time or of granting a degree. There is one sentence where Dobard states that this book is not really research. I believe he may have (erroneously) called it exploratory research. (It is in the first 60 pages or so. I invite anyone who stills has the book in their library to email me the quote and page number to include for future readers.)

There are two obvious sources of possible documentation available to the authors, but these offer no support of their claims. The first is, "19th Century slave narratives." The others are 1930s oral testimonies taken from former slaves, such as the, classic UGRR studies of William Still (1872) 6 and Wilbur H. Siebert (1989) 7.

Due to the absence of similar information in these documents to that of the book's story, as told by Ozella Williams, Mr. Wright asks, "And why weren't others in this [Black community] in possession of the same oral tradition that Williams related? Isn't it likely that Williams was putting Tobin on? Williams story is nice and appealing, but it defies logic; and it doesn't stand up to close scrutiny."

The book's story focuses on fugitive slaves running from Charleston, SC, usually headed toward Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Wright tells us that Black History research found most slaves headed in a northeasterly direction. There were essentially two corridors north - - one up the coast, the other inland. Slave inland states included Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. The free inland states they escaped to were Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. The coastal route included states along the Atlantic Coast, from which the slaves ran for freedom in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Canada. He goes on to say it would seem logical the Charleston slaves would travel the coastal route, which is documented in Still's 1872 research on the routes taken by slaves leaving from SC. Mr. Wright, referring to HIPV's map on page 50, sees no route leading from Charleston to Cleveland, and he asks, "Why wouldn't Charleston UGRR runaways have taken a boat north, rather than heading for Cleveland across the Appalachian mountains?" Mr. Wright and others find very few slaves actually passed through, from the South; 30,000 -50,000 out of a total of 4 million in the US.

That means about 1% of all slaves escaped to the North, yet the premise of the book asserts this elaborate coding system was designed and put into quilts (which are time consuming to make, not to mention costly for some). Was the code only put on Charleston's quilts, as the book's authors, "are silent on the system's existence in other parts of the Antebellum South."

The book implies slaves made plans before their flight, including learning the 10-point quilt code. "Recent scholarship pertaining to fugitive slaves suggests that running away was much more complex than this, motivated as it was by various causes. In some cases fugitive slaves, out of necessity, ran away immediately."

Finally, "We are never told in HIPV who created the encoded quilt system. Who made the quilts and hung them? Was it other slaves? The book does not comment on the great risks for either group, another critical omission."

One final comment: I heard lately that Mr. Wright may be writing a book to refute the findings of HIPV. I checked with him and he replied, "I am not writing a book on NJ's UGRR at the present time." Let us not start any more myths.


1 Giles Wright's Original Critique of HIPV

2 Wright, Giles R., "Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History." Trenton: New Jersey Historical commission, 1988. A brief overview and discussion of NJ's UGRR and map of main routes.

3 Wright, Giles R. and Edward Lama Wonkeryor, "Steal Away, Steal Away… A Guide to the Underground Railroad in New Jersey" New Jersey Historical Commission, NJ Dept. of State, Cultural Affairs, Trenton, NJ.

4 June 4, 2001, Historic Camden County News article by Hoag Levin, NEW JERSEY'S UNDERGROUND RAILROAD MYTH-BUSTER: Giles Wright is on a Mission to Fine Tune Black History

5 Tobin, Jacqueline L. and Raymond G. Dobard, et al. "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad." Publisher of the hardback is Random House, 1998. Paperback version published by Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1999

6 Still, Williams, "The Underground Railroad." Reprint of the 1872 Study by Johnson Publishing Co. in 1970, Chicago. Stills uses his records for this study of fugitive slaves in Philadelphia, a major UGRR center.

7 Siebert, Wilbur H., "The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom" Reprint of the 1898 study by Arno Press & the NY Times in 1967. An early study of the overall operations of the UGRR, including the routes and operatives.

Click here for books on African-American Quilts and Quilters. 

Other UGRR pages on my site:

- Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America
- Giles R. Wright Critique of HIPV 
- "Quilts and the Underground Railroad Revisted: Interview with Historian Giles R. Wright" 

Copyright © 2002, 2005 by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD www.antiquequiltdating.com. All rights reserved. This article is not to be reprinted, in part or full, under any conditions without express permission from the author.


* 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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