Quilt myth debunked

The quilt myth argues that quilts were used to help escaping slaves find their way to freedom by various blocks, or signals in the quilts. They were hung or displayed at safe houses so the fugitive slave would know it was alright to approach that house for help or directions to the next location. (see post Logistics of Quilts as Code, 3/5/11)

Many websites explain the pitfalls of this myth, but that does not stop the myth from continuing. A book Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad was published in 2000 asserting that quilts were used to helped fleeing slaves.

Giles Wright, Jr. © Hoag Levins

Giles R. Wright, Jr., a renowned Africa-American scholar, offered a critique of the book Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad to the Camden, New Jersey Historical Society in June 2001. He rejected “the central thesis of Hidden in Plain Viewthat quilts were used to send coded messages to UGRR participants.”¹ As he stated in his presentation…

1.       Neither of the co-authors is a black historian. In order to write knowledgeably about the UGRR, you must first be a student of the large black historical experience in which the story of the UGRR is located.

2.       Aside from the oral testimony of Ozella McDaniel Williams, the book offers no documentation for its thesis, relying instead on sheer conjecture and speculation in its lack of fidelity to historical truth.

3.       Contrary to popular belief, the overall number of UGRR runaways was very small, a tiny fraction of the total slave population.

4.       Fugitive slaves coming out of South Carolina who used the Underground Railroad usually headed in a northeasterly direction and not towards Cleveland as Hidden in Plain View asserts.

5.       Not all UGRR participants engaged in making very detailed plans before their flight. Hidden in Plain View seems to assume that UGRR participants planned their escape over a considerable period of time that allowed them to learn the ten-point quilt code.

6.       We are never told in Hidden in Plain View who created and operated the encoded quilt system.²

Barbara Brackman

Another person debunking the myth is Barbara Brackman. A respected author and quilt historian, Brackman also debunks the myth that quilts were used as signals to fugitive slaves. She developed a fact sheet that supports that there is no historical evidence for quilts as code. Her site also offers a sermon from Ted Pack as a “summary of [the quilt myth] controversy.”

The Quilting in American website offers a good summary of the quilt myth and offers links to books by other debunkers including: Judy Anne Breneman, Leigh Fellner, and Kris Driessen.

So why does the quilt myth continue? I guess we want to believe the story is true. Perhaps it is like a good fiction book that makes us keep reading until the last page.

Who started the Latta stone house being a stop on the Underground Railroad? I’ll admit it was a good story growing up to imagine that part of history was tied to the house. But…

… faked history serves no one, especially when it buries important truths that have been hidden far too long.³ ~ Fergus Bordewich

Fergus Bordewich

Author Fergus Bordewich, wrote an opinion article for the New York Times in 2007 addressing myths regarding the Underground Railroad. He pointed out that while embellishments don’t diminish the act, untruths perpetuated discount the heroic acts of others that did help the Underground Railroad system work. For example, Harriett Tubman supposedly helped 300 slaves escape, the number was closer to 70.4 This embellishment hasn’t diminished Ms. Tubman’s role, but rather, distorted the facts. She is remembered much more than David Ruggles, who was “very active in anti-slavery organizations helping over 600 enslaved people, including Frederick Douglass, escape to freedom.”5

Bordewich wrote  Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America6 which is excellent. He also has a website and blog, as well as a great visual timeline of the Underground Railroad.

1Giles Wright, Jr. CRITIQUE: Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Ed. Hoag Levins. Historic Camden County, 2001. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. http://www.historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews11_doc_01a.shtml.
2Wright, Jr., ibid.
3Bordewich, Fergus. “History’s Tangled Threads.” NY Times Opinion Page. New York Times, 2 Feb. 2007. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/02/opinion/02bordewich.html?_r=2&e%20x=1171083600&en=2cf8369299cdf9e2&ei=5070&emc=eta1.
4 Bordewich, ibid.
5The David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History & Underground Railroad Studies. Accessed 10 July 2011. http://www.davidrugglescenter.org/?page_id=7
6 Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005).
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Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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