Logistics of Quilts as Codes

As I researched individuals and information on the Underground Railroad, I began to think just how quilts could be used as code for the fugitive slave. The logistics seemed implausible to me. I understand how the slaves could be taught to look for symbols, but how were they to know which path to take? Which stream to cross? Which person to stop?

Consider that individuals involved with the Underground Railroad were not publicly known. Nor were they identified as conductors. No names were written down. “Safe” houses did not have signs on them like motels do today. Rarely did anyone connected with the Underground Railroad know what lay beyond the next stop. No one involved had a “map” of the houses considered safe three stops ahead. People perhaps knew (or only wanted to know) the place before and the place after them.

What is to say that a safe house today will be one next month? Next year? Also, lest not forget – it was difficult terrain to travel! Many of the routes were over mountains and wooded forests.

Now consider being on the run. Which direction do you take? North, guided by the North Star. But who came back to the plantation to tell you the path(s) to take to freedom (besides Harriet Tubman?) The paths were not like roads we have today. The fugitive slave would travel through woods, not the path where horses, wagons and people traveled. Travel would be at night.

What about the weather? Many slaves took off with barely anything else but what they were wearing. (Maybe a quilt was taken to stay warm.) How do you tell a house is “safe?” Is a quilt on the fence? Which block on the quilt told you to proceed or skip this house? What about winter? Would quilts be hung “out to dry” or to “air out” when the temperatures were cold? Would that not be a signal that something is going on at that house? What about when it snowed?

I keep coming back to the logistics and the practicality of using quilts as a code. When I researched what others were saying whether these quilts could be used as code, there was consensus, more often than not, that this was more myth than fact. Jacqueline Tobin and Dr. Raymond Dobard’s book, Hidden in Plain View,¹ was oral history from a family about quilts being used as signals to help fugitive slaves find and navigate to freedom using the Underground Railroad. Ozella McDaniel Williams, a slave descendant, living in South Carolina, told this information to Tobin as Williams’ family had told her. Ms. Williams’ family lore contends the slaves memorized the various blocks as a code. Since slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write, the only way to find freedom on the Underground Railroad was to look for these quilts.

In rebutting Ms. Williams’ claim that this was family history, Kris Driessen, an accomplished quilt maker, quilt historian, quilting teacher, author, researcher, and lecturer from New York points out, “the code must have passed through nine generations of extreme societal change, a daunting task even for a culture who relied on oral history…Where the slaves found the time to make these quilts, or what fabric they used, was never explained.”² She also notes there were seventeen quilts, each containing a block with a message. My question, in addition to Driessen’s is, how did these quilts make it to “safe” houses/families?

The myth indicates that a quilt on the fence rail was to signal the fugitive slave it is all right to stop here. How did the “safe” house know when a slave would just happen to be in the area? It was not like a bus terminal where a schedule was kept! Did they keep a quilt on the fence at all times? Also, what would stop pro-slavery people from throwing quilts on their fence? What stopped pro-slavery people from learning about this open signal?

Logistics. The planning and implementation of a complex task. Thinking about the logistics of how quilts as code could be implemented makes me believe this is a myth.

Again, oral family history played a significant role in Ms. Williams’ perpetuating this story. I am quite sure to her dying days she believed it was true. Just like my family’s oral history, regarding the Latta Stone house being part of the Underground Railroad. It was passed down nearly seven generations. Moreover, our societal change was not as great as Ms. Williams. Nor was the house’s history secretive.

¹Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, PhD.  Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. (New York, N.Y First Anchor Books, 2000).

²Kris Driessen, accessed March 3, 2011. http://www.quilthistory.com/ugrrquilts.htm.

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Published in: on March 5, 2011 at 8:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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