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).
Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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.

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

New connection, new insights to California, PA UGRR site

California has been the focus of a lot of folklore much of it never confirmed~ Ron Paglia

In January I received on email from a gentleman, Ron Paglia, who was researching an individual from my family, namely my great-aunt Dee Dee (Mary Margaret Chester) and her connection to the Stone House Players.

Miss Chester was in to the dramatics and created a group called the Stone House Players. Mr. Paglia was researching an individual (Sally Cairns) who was part of the group. He was made aware of my connection and me to Miss Chester through the California Area Historical Society. (I had visited there several times.) They gave him my email address as well as my blog/research address on the Underground Railroad in the area.

After conversing via email, we spoke on January 20th. I was able to give him several reference points regarding his research, but since I was only 10 years old when Dee Dee died, I suggested he speak with my older sister, Diane. She lived at the Latta Stone house with our great-aunt and even attended elementary school for a few years in Roscoe, PA.

Shutterly House - Front and side

After we spoke, Mr. Paglia sent me his recollections on the Shutterly house at 800 Park Street in California, PA and its connection to the Underground Railroad. His recollections are as follows:

I believe you said you talked to a woman there during your visit in this area in 2009. James “Moe” Giovanardi lived there and he and I graduated from California Community High School in 1957. His sister, Janet Giovanardi, graduated in 1955. I’m not sure of whatever happened to Moe, although I do recall that the folks who organized our traditional class reunions lost track of him over the years. I did find references to a Joseph and Christina Giovanardi owning the home and living there in the 1970s and 1980s, but I did not know them.

As I mentioned on the home, I was in the home on several occasions, because Moe and I were friends. And I recall going into the basement of the home and seeing a section boarded up. The story was that the opening behind the boards led to a tunnel that was part of the Underground Railroad and led to a spot near the Monongahela River in West Brownsville (Washington County), just across the river from Brownsville (Fayette County). The story making the rounds in those years also alluded to the tunnel passing under a Boy Scout campsite just outside of California on property that now houses the Center In The Woods senior center and The Oaks independent housing complex just off Route 88 between California and Blainesburg.

As Boy Scouts, we often held meetings and outings there and even camped overnight at times. There were stories about “ghosts … in the ground below us” as we sat around a campfire at night. The legend also indicated that the slaves who used the tunnel “wound up in Brownsville” and made their way to other homes that were part of the Underground Railroad there. One of those homes supposedly was located just off-Broadway (street or avenue), which led to Route 40. I do recall that Moe Giovanardi had relatives who lived there (perhaps a cousin) and that we went there a few times. Moe was one of the few guys in California who had a car and he often asked me if I wanted to go for a ride.

Despite all of the stories surrounding the Giovanardi home being part of the Underground Railroad, I have never seen any documentation of that, nor have I ever talked to anyone in California who could verify it.

Other buildings in California as you no doubt know also were linked to the Underground Railroad, but like other towns in the Mon Valley, California has been the focus of a lot of folklore much of it never confirmed, etc. Similar stories have evolved in Fayette City and Monongahela (Bethel AME Church).

Just like the Latta Stone House being connected to the Underground Railroad, many folklore just don’t pan out to be the truth. However, who are we, in the 21st century to say that perhaps the occupants of these homes didn’t direct, loan horses, or give water and or food to a fugitive slave or two?

Ron Paglia has over 54 years experience in the newspaper, public relations and freelance professions.

UGRR site in Roscoe, PA

The Monongahela Valley Area
Underground Railroad sites

Latta Stone House -1 Star*

The Latta Stone House circa 1900

Located on Mt. Tabor Road, in a city originally called Lucyville, the Latta Stone House is what started me on this journey.  The Stockdale family built this house in 1805. Legend had it that Allen Stockdale built it, but my genealogical research has Allen born in 1802.¹ I am not sure which Stockdale built it, but I have documents proving my great great grandfather O.D Latta purchased the house and land in 1869. It stayed in our family until 1980, after my grandfather died and his estate settled.

Professor Mainwaring’s site analysis describes it as a poorly documented Underground Railroad site with the only reference in an article by Mary Herron in The Washington Observer,² October 29, 1937. Herron’s article describes what I heard as a child growing up and visiting my relatives.  My Aunt Dee Dee’s (Mary Margaret Chester) bedroom was upstairs in the southwest corner of the house. Her closet, the only bedroom with a full-length closet, contained a false ceiling that led the only way into the attic. As a child, my brother and sisters were told how this house was part of the Underground Railroad. We were then lifted up into the attic to see where the slaves hid. I remember how it was pitch black up there. A fugitive slave could hide in plain sight.

Latta Stone House in the winter circa 1960s

Who actually lived in the house during the 1850s? Were they were pro- or anti-slavery? Throughout my research I have been unable to determine who legally owned or lived in the house from 1830 – 1863.  I know Allen Stockdale died in 1845, but I’m not sure he lived there. This also brings up the notion that all of this could have been a myth.

But if it was a myth, why? Was it to make the house more saleable? Was it to elevate the social status of the occupants? All I have is family lore, no documented facts. But it wasn’t a hotel with a registry. Records were not kept on who passed through the area needing help. The only tie I can draw is that area Quakers helped fugitive slaves. Thomas Stockdale, Allen’s father, was a Quaker but was banished from the local meeting group shortly after his arrival to the area in the late 1700s.

Latta Stone House circa 1977 from Mt. Tabor Rd.

I also wonder why Professor Mainwaring gives the Latta Stone House only one star and the Shutterly House three stars. Could it be that the Latta Stone House is situated in an area where no other reported Underground Railroad activity was made? The Shutterly House was a few blocks from the Job Johnson Hotel, a documented site, so was it elevated in plausibility? I think the Latta Stone House as an Underground Railroad site is possible being so close (four blocks) to the Monongahela River, but couldn’t you say that about other houses in the area…?

*1 North Star: Probability of site being a stop is low. Evidence is very slim and not very good. Local oral traditions may be the only source.

¹Department of Commerce. Census of Population and Housing, 1810. (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1810.)

²Mary Herron, “Latta Stone House Is Most Perfect Virginia Type Mansion In The Area, ” (The Washington Observer, October 29, 1937.)