[This is a companion page to Quilt Codes and the Underground Railroad, a talk I gave to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County in February 2007. Some of the comments - particulary the one about the NSA - are on both pages.]
The fourth principle of our denomination is "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning". There is more controversy about coded quilts used by the Underground Railway than I thought possible. Some people say they are a myth, others that white historians didn't know about them and so discounted the stories. You can find 130,000+ pages in Google if you search for [Quilt Code controversy]. Here is a selection of free and responsible web sites, if you'd like to take up the search on this topic.
The International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska has recorded an even-handed, 44-minute iTune lecture by Laura Horton, if you have a fast connection. (The site includes a free iTune download). Laurel Horton is a folklorist and an internationally known quilt researcher. A native of Kentucky, she earned a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Library Science from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. degree in Folklore from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.
The Underground Railroad Quilt Code, by Leigh Fellner.
Did Quilts Hold Codes to the Underground Railroad? (National Geographic). This, and EVERY other site I found supporting the story, uses just one source, "Hidden in Plain View". I have it here so you can see how wide the myth has spread.
Barbara Brackman's Fact Sheet on The Quilt Code.
Follow the Drinking Gourd
(National Security Agency)
[Ed. Note: This NSA page presents the codes as fact. It doesn't mention the controversy raging around the codes. The NSA evaluates information for a living, and the fate of our nation hangs on their professional ability. I do my evaluating for fun, at night, after a couple of glasses of wine. Why was I able to find the controversy and they were not?]
Slave Quilt Exhibit, another page on the NSA site, 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.
Black Threads: Explorations in African American Quilting, Quilt History, Fabrics and other Fanciful Topics.
The Underground Railroad and the Use of Quilts as Messengers for Fleeing Slaves by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD.
An American Quilt Myth: The Secret Quilt Code of the Underground Railroad by Patricia L. Cummings, quilt historian.
Threads of Freedom: The Underground Railroad Story in Quilts, an exhibit at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
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