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Quilt Codes and the Underground Railroad


I used to be the web master for my church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County in Modesto, California. In February 2007 we invited a woman to talk to us about Quilt Codes and the Underground Railroad. I didn't know anything about quilts. For the reasons you'll see below, I tried to reconcile the lady's opinion with a different one. (Or, if not reconcile, at least present two sides of the argument.) I failed. She canceled her appearance and I spoke in her place.

The opportunity to be a third party when two groups disagree always reminds me of a time I was hiking on Mt. Diablo.

I saw an old, dried-up cow pie in the middle of the trail. In time it would disintegrate into something the wildflowers would appreciate. As I got closer I noticed I would have to break my stride to avoid it. I decided in mid-stride that if I stepped in it, scattering the dried shreds, I would not only help my fellow hikers by making the trail a bit more attractive, but I would help the poppies by breaking it down sooner. So, I stepped right in the middle of it.

I discovered that it was not an old, dried-up cow pie. It was a new, wet one, from a large and well-fed cow, with a very thin dried crust. Sometimes when an outsider tries to help two different groups, he can; sometimes he just ends up ankle-deep in poop.

This is a slightly edited version of my talk. I didn't use the cow-pie metaphor with them.

"Another fine mess you've gotten us into" - Laurel and Hardy.

Good morning; I'm our congregation's web master. I'm going to talk about Quilt Codes, the Underground Railroad, and how "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning" can ruin your week.

Web master is an odd post, compared to singing in the choir or working on the Buildings and Grounds Committee. I can do most of my work from home, at any hour of the day or night. I sometimes work early in the morning, in my sarong. I've worn a sarong around the house since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Borneo; regular in the summer, flannel in the winter. I'm the only church web master in Stanislaus County to wear one, and I'm lucky you are such a tolerant bunch. When I told Bill G. about my working habits and working garment, he said "There's nothing sarong with that."

On to Quilt Codes. One of our members, who volunteers as a docent at the McHenry Mansion, heard a fascinating lecture there by a lady, on the subject of "Quilt Codes and the Underground Railroad". She asked the lady if she would like to speak to us on the same subject. She agreed. I put her topic on our "Sunday Services" page three weeks before her talk. The day after I posted the topic on our web site, I received an e-mail message from a Unitarian Universalist in Monterey, California, a quilter herself, telling me the codes were a myth. She sent me half a dozen authoritative links, including one to an article in the New York Times. [The NYT asks you to register, so I'm not putting the link here.] I received two more in the course of the week.

I passed the information on to our worship committee. I added a special page of links to our web site, devoted to the controversy. All of the links I could find either parroted "Hidden in Plain View", the book in question, or said the quilt codes were a myth. In my innocence, I thought our speaker hadn't heard about the controversy and would be happy to learn more. The Quilt Code lady told the worship committee that she knew the codes were controversial, and she would address the controversy in her talk, if we didn't mind having a talk on a controversial subject. They assured her that we had hosted controversial speakers before.

We've had speakers on same-sex marriage, the war in Iraq, global warming, the Patriot Act and some who have questioned our government's wisdom. Compared to them, Quilt Codes were going to be a tempest in a teacup, a hamster's hiccup, a snake's shrug. We assured her that our fourth principle was "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning" and that we would welcome her. Nevertheless, after a week's discussion, she decided that she didn't want to speak to us. She refused to give me any links that would support her side of the controversy.

So, on the theory that if I caused the problem, I should provide the solution, I volunteered to speak this morning. That in turn meant spending the week researching and composing a 2500-word essay that would amuse, delight and instruct most of you. With luck it won't offend too many of the rest of you, plus it had to have some moral and spiritual insights. Rev. Grace has to write a sermon three times a month; no wonder she needed a sabbatical.

Before this all came crashing down around my ears, I had no idea quilters could be so passionate about the subject. It turns out that quilt code debates are to quilters what steel cage death matches are to professional wrestlers; emotions run high and both sides are out for blood. I spent more than 40 hours researching the topic and having competent historians review the rough drafts of my talk. I knew nothing about them to start with, and now I know a little.

A bit of background; the "Underground Railroad" was not a real railroad. It was loose-knit organization of people who helped fugitive slaves escape. People helped fugitive slaves from roughly 1780 until 1862, but they didn't call it the "Underground Railroad" until real railroads became common enough to make the analogy clear. Legend has it that one slave named Tice Davids escaped by swimming across the Ohio River. His owner exclaimed that he "seemed to have escaped on an underground railroad", a name that stuck. They used railroad terms. A "conductor" guided the slaves by night, and "stations" were places where the runaways could rest for the day.

No one knows exactly how many slaves escaped via the underground railroad. Most estimates I've seen are in the 100,000 range, give or take 50,000. Some lived openly in the northern states, and even published their stories in abolitionist journals. Some kept quiet. After congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, they were not totally safe anywhere in the United States, so many of them continued fleeing north until they got to Canada.

Barbara Brackman, Patricia Cummings, Leigh Fellner and Kimberly Wulfert are all quilt historians with web sites devoted to the quilt code controversy. I drew on all of them for my information. I have links to their sites and several others are on the Quilt Code Links page.

How did the controversy start? A number of children's fiction books came out in the 1990's, featuring some sort of codes in quilts. The first and best-known was "Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt", written in 1989 and published in 1993. In it, a young slave makes a quilt that is literally a map of the area surrounding the plantation where she lives, which she uses to escape.

Shortly after "Sweet Clara" came out, a writer named Jacqueline Tobin met Ozella McDaniel Williams in a market in Charleston, South Carolina. The late Ms. Williams was an African American, a former school administrator and had a law degree from Howard University. She had retired and was selling quilts. She told Ms. Tobin that specific block patterns in quilts had coded meanings for the Underground Railroad, codes which had been handed down orally in her family for generations. Ms. Tobin bought a quilt.

Details of exactly what happened in the years afterwards differ, but eventually Ms. Tobin, who is white, convinced Raymond Dobard, who is African-American, to join forces with her. Dr. Dobard is an art history professor at Howard University but not a quilt historian. Ms. Tobin teaches writing; she wasn't a quilt historian either. They interviewed Ms. Williams, who gave them pieces of the story a bit at a time over the course of three years. Tobin and Dobard wrote a book about the codes, "Hidden in Plain View". It came out in 1999.

According to "Hidden", a plantation seamstress would sew a sampler quilt containing different quilt patterns. Slaves would use the sampler as an aid to memorize the code. The seamstress then sewed ten quilts, each composed of one of the code's patterns. A quilt block named "The North Star", for instance, reminded slaves to go north. A block named "The Drunkard's Path" reminded those on the run to follow a crooked trail (in much the way a drunken man staggers) during their journey. The book describes 10 blocks and their hidden meanings.

The book told a wonderful story - the slaves outsmarting their masters. Score one for the underdog! It came out when there was a demand for things that would get children interested in Black History. Best of all for grade-school teachers, the "coded" quilt squares were easy to make with construction paper. There was one problem - it might not have been true.

Critics of the book said that it had some serious flaws:

Finally, common sense tells us there are faster ways to memorize things than to stitch them into a quilt. As Christopher Densmore wrote,

The idea that enslaved people would take the hundreds of hours to make the multiple quilts necessary to pass on some very simple instructions, when they could have done the same thing in a five minute conversation behind the barn, suggests not ingenuity but, at the very least, very odd priorities. The cartoonist Rube Goldberg made a career of designing machines that took thirty steps to do what any normal person could do in one or two.

There are two extreme positions in the debate. Cynics say Ms. Williams, inspired by the children's book, made the whole thing up to sell more quilts, and that she was reluctant to reveal the whole story all at once because she had to make up new parts between visits. Adherents say that white historians are, once again, dismissing a triumph of ingenuity by African-Americans. Those are the extremes. Everyone I have read and will cite has taken a stance somewhere between those two positions. All of them save Professor Dobard, however, say that while there might be a grain of truth in the story somewhere, the Quilt Codes are a myth.

All of the sites I found supporting the Quilt Code theory used "Hidden in Plain View" as their only source. The rest criticize the scholarship in the book.

Christopher Densmore is Curator of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College. He has a special interest because the Friends - better known as the Quakers - founded Swarthmore and were active in the Underground Railroad. Mr. Densmore sent a list of some of the inaccuracies he found in "Hidden" to a mailing list devoted to the Underground Railroad. I should note that he was writing to fellow "UGRR" historians, so his original list was terse and succinct. This is his list, but I added a bit of explanation to some of his points for the benefit of those of us who haven't studied history recently:

I found an undated on-line press release from American University in Washington, DC. From the file name I suspect it came out February 22nd, 2000. It is about Raymond Dobard's visit to the university while on a book tour:

Dobard . . . offered listeners the keys to understanding. The first step the quilting scholar offered is to abandon the inadequate mechanism of Western deductive reasoning. In its place, he invited consideration of a dizzying array of possible ways to interpret messages in the quilts. Read these quilts as one might read poetry, not merely for the linear sense, but for connections evoked in phrases, or feelings that resonate through colliding syllables.

"Western deductive reasoning" is inadequate for many things - hope, faith, love and beauty, for instance, are hard to "deduce". Western deductive reasoning works pretty well for historical facts. I use it every time I work on my family tree.

Laurel Horton is a folklorist and a quilt researcher. She delivered a lecture on the Quilt Codes to the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska. They described her lecture as "even-handed", which makes it sound like there are two sides to the debate. I wrote to her about that term. She very graciously replied:

Probably the reason that my presentation was described as "even-handed" is that I can now discuss the Quilt Code controversy without getting emotional. I understand that there are powerful reasons why people believe that the code is true. It makes a good story. It's like the idea that Betsy Ross made the first American flag. That story didn't originate until the late 19th century. There are many such examples.

The Quilt Code is another one. A lot of people on both sides of the controversy become very emotional when confronted with people who disagree with them. I don't like being upset and angry, so I have worked hard to not take any of this personally. It's a fact that there's no historic evidence for the Code's existence. It's also a fact that a lot of people believe in the Code. It's just hard to face both facts at the same time.

[Note 1: I linked to Ms. Horton's lecture and to several other sites on the special Quilt Code Links page.]

[Note 2: If you are interested in Betsy Ross, enter "Betsy Ross" and "Myth" in any reputable search engine. One myth was enough for me this week.]

The experience was an education. In the course of my very brief research, I found two web pages devoted to the quilt codes on the National Security Administration's web site. The people at the NSA evaluate information for a living. The fate of our nation may hang on their professional abilities. As of February 2007, one of their pages presents the codes as fact and doesn't mention the controversy. The other page says, "Most historians consider the stories involving the quilts to be more legend than fact". The NSA's left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing, evidently. One wonders if there are other places where this is true.

Our fourth principle is, again, "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning". I've been looking for the truth about Quilt codes for the past two weeks. How should one go about searching for truth?

One way, drummed into me by 30 years of genealogy, is to consider the sources. An appalling number of my fellow genealogists are convinced that their ancestor came to the USA after poaching the king's game. I've heard of poaching an egg and cooking the books, but why, I always ask them, would anyone want to boil the royal Scrabble set? After the laughter dies down I ask for their sources. Usually it is a family legend. Sometimes they re-evaluate their family legend, sometimes they don't. I find humor helps soften the shock of seeing their cherished story debunked.

We genealogists are used to discrepancies in birth years and birthplaces; it is one of the facts of life in our hobby. With a couple of census entries, a christening record, marriage license and a tombstone, we can usually pin someone's birth year down to a three-year span, and their birth place to a specific state, if not county. We tend to be wary of facts with just one source. "Hidden", I remind you, has just one source.

Another way is to look at the whole work. Many people mistrust "Hidden in Plain View" because of the historical inaccuracies. I mentioned some before. Why would a few trivial mis-statements matter? Those of us who watch lawyer shows on television know that if you can catch a witness in one mis-statement, you can destroy his entire credibility. Those of us who have served on a jury know that in real life, most witnesses get caught in a mis-statement or two, and the case usually goes to the side with the fewest mistakes.

Christopher Densmore, the library curator I quoted before, very kindly wrote to me about the controversy. He said Ozella McDaniel Williams could have made up the whole story to sell quilts then adds:

Or, somewhere behind the story, [there could be] some authentic account, but one so garbled to be virtually useless.

He went on to say:

This latter gets into the problems of human and cultural memory. I know of examples where family stories passed down through generations remain quite accurate but many others where details become blurry or confused. Two of my grandparents were born in log cabins in Minnesota in the 1880s. I realize that I can't distinguish clearly between things I might have learned from them as a child, the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories or just some account of "pioneer living" picked up from a visit to the museum.

My subtitle is a small example of the memory problem; that quote is not accurate, although most of us geezers will think we recognize it immediately. Oliver Hardy actually said "Another NICE mess you've gotten ME into", in half a dozen movies. In the same vein, Humphrey Bogart never said "Play it again, Sam" in "Casablanca", and, although it was the tag line for many of the movies based on the stories, Sherlock Holmes never said "Elementary, my dear Watson" in any of the stories themselves. So, when you search for truth, remember - memories may be faulty.

One final note: The quilt historians I corresponded with were all calm, polite and more than willing to share their opinions and their reasoning with me. Any debate involves some heat and some light; if there were no emotions involved, life would be dull. A search for truth means being willing to listen to the other side, if you expect them to listen to you. If you can listen without too much heat, you have a good chance of shedding light in return.

[Written February 2007]

[This is one of my Miscellaneous Essays. There are more; you may enjoy another section of my web site, too:]

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