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Quilts and the Underground Railroad
DID QUILTS HELP THE SLAVES GAIN THEIR FREEDOM?
Two historians claim that quilts may have been used to navigate the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. The patterns such as "wagon wheels", "tumbling blocks", and "bear claws" may have contained a special code to help slaves find their route along the Underground Railroad, according to
. It was a way of giving individuals directions in secret, yet still in plain sight. Walking up to someone and giving them outright directions could land that person in jail or even get them killed, according to the
Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard first proposed this theory in their work,
Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of the Quilts and the Underground Railroad
According to the historians, a slave would sew a sampler quilt containing different quilt patterns and these patterns would then be copied into other quilts and transported by slaves through the area in which they lived. These patterns were memorized by slaves hoping to gain freedom and find their way along the Underground Railroad.
This theory has not gone unchallenged and without criticism, however. Some historians claim Bodard and Tobin's research was not valid because there is no colloborating evidence in the oral narratives handed down from the slaves themselves. Tobin and Bodard counter that the slaves would not talk of this for fear of giving away a route to freedom. Dobard even
this by saying that most individuals would not write the material down because it would fall into the wrong hands.
magazine also claim that most historians refute the statements made by Tobin and Bodard as family legends and that they are just part of folklore.
Nonetheless, it is an interesting theory and worth exploration because of the variety of materials that are available on the subject.
EXAMPLES OF QUILT PATTERNS THAT WERE USED
All photos courtesy of
University of California at Berkeley
Some further information about the monkey wrench pattern can be found at
Safe Harbor: Quilts and the Underground Railroad
Some further information can be found about the Bear's Paw pattern at the
Safe Harbor: Quilts and the Underground Railroad site
(scroll to the bottom of the page)
An interesting article about quilting and the Underground Railroad as well as some interpretation of what the patterns mean can be found at the
University of California at Berkeley.
INTERESTING WEB LINKS ABOUT THE SUBJECT
Not only does this contain information about the quilts, but it also has some unique information about the UGRR itself.
This is an interesting site from a woman who claims the myth really is true.
BOOKS OF INTEREST ON THIS TOPIC
Quilts from the Civil War: Nine Projects, Historic Notes, Diary Entries
by Barbara Brackman.
Civil War Diary Quilt
by Rosemary Youngs.
Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad
by Jacqueline L. Tobin & Raymond G. Dobard.
The Underground Railroad Sampler
by Eleanor Burns
Ives, Sarah. "Did Quilts Hold Codes to the Underground Railroad?"
National Georgraphic News
. O5 Feb. 2004. Accessed via
18 Oct. 2007.
Stukin, Stacie. "Unraveling the Myth of Quilts and the Underground Railroad." Time Magazine. 03 Apr 2007. Accessed via
20 Oct. 2007.
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