Underground Railroad Quilt Code

Did quilts help guide escaped slaves to safety? Did different quilt blocks have specific meanings to slaves, perhaps based on their African past? Was the pattern of stitches and knots informative about routes to take, perhaps creating a topographical map?

The most famous telling of a quilt code says that indeed, quilts were a vital part of the Underground Railroad, and their history with it was unwritten until very recently.

One of the blocks in the quilt code is the Bear’s Paw, shown here.

This pattern consists of several squares, rectangles, and right triangles. When different scraps of fabric are used, the pattern takes on the complexity of a map that is remarkably similar in design to the African Hausa embroidered map of a village …Just as the Hausa design defines the perimeter of the village and identifies major landmarks, the Bear’s Paw pattern could be used to identify landmarks on the border of the plantation …

Because the bears lived in the mountains and knew their way around, their tracks served as road maps enabling the fugitives to navigate their way through the mountains. … The bears’ trails formed a map.

From Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.

Slaves escaped in all directions. We are used to thinking of them traveling north to Canada. But in fact they also went south to Mexico and Spanish Florida, disappeared into cities and remote areas, and took shelter with Native American communities. Best estimates are that between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves successfully escaped northward. Most escaped on their own, getting help only after reaching the North.

The Underground Railroad is attributed with helping to move slaves to freedom during the late-1700s to mid-1800s. (Freedom activism long preceded the phrase “Underground Railroad,” which wasn’t used until the 1830s.) Not a physical railroad, of course, it was an “underground” movement of abolitionists and allies, with a web of routes and safe houses. Those slaves who escaped endured incredible trials of strength and courage.

There are documented truths about the Underground Railroad, from those who made it function and those who escaped. But it also has been romanticized and mythologized. It is not always easy to separate fact from fiction.

Hidden in Plain View?

Prior to 1999, there were few known sources claiming the existence of a quilt code. According to wikipedia,

The first known assertion of the use of quilts … was a single statement in the narration of the 1987 video Hearts and Hands, which stated “They say quilts were hung on the clotheslines to signal a house was safe for runaway slaves.” This assertion does not appear in the companion book and is not supported by any documentation in the filmmaker’s research file.[1] The first print appearance of such a claim was Stitched from the Soul, a 1990 book by folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry, which states — without providing any source — “Quilts were used to send messages. On the Underground Railroad, those with the color black were hung on the line to indicate a place of refuge (safe house)…Triangles in quilt design signified prayer messages or prayer badge, a way of offering prayer. Colors were very important to slave quilt makers. The color black indicated that someone might die. A blue color was believed to protect the maker.”[1] …

The idea, clearly presented as fiction in Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, that slave quilts served as coded maps for escapees, entered the realm of claimed fact in the 1999 book Hidden in Plain View, written by Raymond Dobard, Jr., an art historian, and Jacqueline Tobin, a college instructor in Colorado.[3]

In 1999, the stories of a woman named Ozella McDaniel Williams were published in the book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. The book also includes a mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times.

Author Tobin met Williams in 1994. Williams was a South Carolina quilt vendor at a flea market mall. In 1997 during their second of three meetings, “Ozella,” as the book refers to her, told Tobin stories she claimed were passed down through her family. This oral history, if confirmed, would change our understanding of methods of communicating about the Underground Railroad and routes to freedom.

According to Williams, there were eleven quilt blocks in the code. The blocks were sewn into quilts, which would be displayed one at a time on fences or clothes lines. Because it was normal to air quilts regularly, showing the quilts this way wouldn’t arouse suspicion by owners or overseers.

The blocks shown below are woven into Williams’ version discussed in the book. Some versions include other blocks, as well.

A short version of the code says

The Monkey Wrench turns the Wagon Wheel toward Canada on a Bear’s Paw trail to the Crossroads. Once they got to the Crossroads, they dug a Log Cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin Bow Ties and go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange Double Wedding Rings. Flying Geese stay on the Drunkard’s Path and follow the Stars.

The book presents this very short interpretation, but it includes linkages and suppositions and speculations about the meanings of all the blocks, as well. For example, the Bear’s Paw block shown above is interpreted as both a map of the plantation itself, as well as advice to follow actual bears’ trails over the mountain.

About another, the Monkey Wrench block, the authors state, “Ozella told us that a quilt made of Monkey Wrench patterned blocks was the first of the ten quilts displayed … a signal for the slaves to begin their escape preparations” and gather physical and mental tools.

Along with this understanding of the block, the authors include discussion of the role of the blacksmith on the plantation, with tools including the monkey wrench. The blacksmith’s metal-working ability may have hidden the smith’s function of conveying information to other slaves under the ring of the hammer. A photo of an African textile is shown, to further convey the importance of tools in the previous environment.

More than 120 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, claims of a quilt code arose. Had the evidence been missed all those years? Was the truth really hidden in plain view?

What is the Truth?

To anyone used to reading academic research, even in laymen’s terms, Hidden in Plain View clearly falls short. In fact, the book reads as one long, breathless speculation on the possibility that quilts were used to help guide slaves to freedom. The linkages to African symbolism in art and song do not confirm or deny the potential. This alone does not negate the premise. Finding the truth is somewhat more difficult.

Historians, including those with expertise in quilts and other textiles, eagerly reviewed the possibilities to answer the question: Were quilts used to help guide slaves to freedom?

Strong evidence in support could consist of testimony of escaped slaves, or from former slaves after emancipation; testimony from freedom activists; public records or contemporary writings; or remaining textiles with long provenance and supporting documentation, among other things. Weaker evidence in support might include other contemporary information such as textile availability and use, for example; or direct linkages between African symbolism and the quilt code.

If none of this evidence exists, there is no support for the claim that quilts were used as part of an Underground Railroad communication system, helping slaves to escape.

Did slaves make quilts, and are there existing quilts that provide provenance on this?
We do know that slaves made quilts. Surviving examples made prior to Emancipation are mostly those made for owners, rather than for the slaves themselves. Despite the abundance of cotton in the South, fabric was scarce even before the Civil War began. The South had very few mills, and they were small, mostly making rough cloth. Most finer fabric came from the North or from Europe.

For their own use, many quilts made by slaves would have been “utility” quilts. (This may have depended largely on regional differences, as well.) These had rougher fabric, simpler construction, and ties or long stitches of thick threads, rather than fine quilt stitching. Woven blankets were more prevalent than quilts. Slaves were typically issued one blanket each two years. Washed with lye, both types of bed covers disintegrated over time. Clothing provisions also were meager, and using remnants or scraps from “old” clothes to make quilts was unlikely.

There are no existing quilts known that have documentation of being used to signal or communicate escape information.

Did slaves make quilts using the blocks in the purported quilt code?
Some of the blocks are documented from pre-Civil War. Others are not. One problem with documentation is that blocks were assigned different names in different regions, or at different times. Also there may be multiple block designs that have the same name. Assuming that one design always went by the same name is problematic.

For example, the Bear’s Paw design shown above is now considered a traditional block. Most quilters today, if they know block names, would call it a Bear’s Paw. Ozella Williams called it a Bear’s Paw. But Barbara Brackman, a premier quilt historian, documents three different blocks by the same name in her Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns. Which one was used, if any?

Other blocks show no history of use before the Civil War. Double Wedding Rings is a design that originated in the late 1920s. Log Cabin blocks were popularized during the Civil War.

From Leigh Fellner’s extensive review of the quilt code:

In fact, the Log Cabin pattern seems to be limited to the North as a popular expression of Union sentiment; I have not been able to find any documented examples dating from before the Civil War. Quilt historian Barbara Brackman notes in Quilts from the Civil War that the earliest date-inscribed quilt of this pattern is dated 1869: “Quilt historian Virginia Gunn has found three written references to Log Cabin quilts as fundraisers for the union cause in 1863, the likely year for the beginning of the style. At that point the underground Railroad no longer functioned as it had before the War….So we must not imagine Log Cabin quilts as signals in the decade before the War. Rather, like Emancipation, the pattern grew out of the War. It is more historically accurate to view their symbolic function as an indicator of allegiance to President Lincoln and the Union cause…One indication that a Union connection [with the pattern] continued is the relative lack of late nineteenth-century Log Cabin quilts made in the former Confederate states.”

How would the quilts have been used to communicate?
According to Williams in Hidden in Plain View, quilts would have been used to communicate before escaping. With ten different quilts showing the different blocks, each would signal a specific piece of information. Wouldn’t it be easier to communicate most of this in words rather than in a semaphore-like system?

Also, the authors (not Williams) imply that the quilts may have been used en route, for instance to signal safe houses. Because most travel was in the safety of darkness, how would a runaway slave find the quilt, and see it well enough to interpret it? They discuss different colors as having particular meanings, but this becomes especially problematic in darkness.

Are there any documented first-hand reports of quilts used to communicate in code?
Historians’ examination of the written record does not uncover this communication. Pamphlets and books with first-hand accounts, including histories taken by the WPA in the 1930s, do not provide evidence of this communication.

I reviewed text of the book Underground Rail Road by WIlliam Still. Still helped hundreds of slaves escape, and interviewed each. His book does not include any mention of quilts used to escape. Two other sources include Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, and North American Slave Narratives, a collection of the University of North Carolina, which includes “all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920.” I did not examine these records myself, but am reporting the consensus of several historians.

Other than the oral history reported by Ozella Williams and a handful of others who came after her, there is no support for the use of quilts this way.

Is there other evidence presented in the book that provides firm support for the premise?
No. The book includes lengthy discussion of secret societies and the role of the griot (historian/storyteller) in African societies. It continues with supposition on the Freemasons and the ability of free blacks to travel to the South without repercussions. African symbolism and spiritual songs are linked to the quilt code as well. But none of these provide evidence of a quilt code, merely weak support of the possibility.

The authors also depend substantially on present-day children’s literature for support, books like Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson. It’s actually a lovely book — I’ve bought it myself — but it is fiction, not academic research.

Conclusion: reputable historians of both the Underground Railroad and of quilts agree: there is insufficient evidence to support the premise that a quilt code was used to communicate this way.

Does it Matter?

Does it matter if this story is told and believed, even if it is not true? Is it harmful to let it persist?

I believe it is harmful. It provides a romanticized version of an ugly past. It allows us to imagine that slave women had leisure and resources to create beautiful bedding for their own use. Though some surely did, that was not typical. If the quilts were not their own, it’s implied they somehow had access and power to decide which of the owner’s quilts to air (and signal) and at what time.

It suggests that “African” symbolism was consistent across all cultures, and all slaves would interpret the textile symbols in consistent ways. This minimizes the richness and complexity of the various cultures from which they came.

The book Hidden in Plain View is factually incorrect in many places, and depends on speculation for most of the rest. Readers who believe this source of information will perpetuate the stories. Ozella Williams was a quilt vendor. She may have told the stories in good faith, or she may have told the stories to sell quilts. The potential conflict of interest should not be ignored.

School curricula on slavery and the Underground Railroad that include this “history” are wrong. Schools began including the story in the early part of the new century. As I researched for the post, I found many suggested lesson plans, still in existence. Typically, the plans suggest having students design quilts using the code blocks. The children are learning lies.

And now there are at least a couple of popular authors of adult historical fiction, who include this premise in their plot lines. When I presented on this topic recently to a group of twenty, most of them came to the presentation assuming the myth was fact. Several attributed it to the novels they had read.

Truth is strength. We don’t need to pretty it up with cozy quilts and homey images. We owe it to those who suffered slavery, to ourselves and our children, and to the future, to know and tell the truth.

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23 thoughts on “Underground Railroad Quilt Code

  1. shoreacres

    This is a terrific post, Melanie. Apart from the way you’ve presented the specific topic, you’ve provided an example of how questions of fact and truth can be dealt with in a way that respects the past.

    A couple of weeks ago, there was a discussion of a so-called “rattlesnake” quilt pattern on Weather Underground.. It developed after someone mentioned our incessant wind, and suggested the wind helped to drive prairie women insane. An author was quoted, one who’s made the assertion that women being pushed to the edge revealed their increasing fear and fragility through their quilt patterns. I need to find that whole discussion for you, because it’s another wonderful example of the way a hypothesis, once published, can be accepted as gospel truth – not to mention how the psychologizing of experience can distort past reality by imposing contemporary values onto it.

    One thing I appreciated here was your reminder that “African” symbolism is hardly a useful concept. Symbolism isn’t consistent across all African cultures, and to even suggest such a thing is laughable. In Liberia, there were very real differences among the Vai, Mano, Kpelle and Loma tribes. In the same way, the histories of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast resulted in different traditions and symbols. The Kente cloth of Ghana, the country cloth of LIberia, and the Fanti cloth of markets across West Africa are all beautiful, but quite distinct.

    Just as a side note, I was an adult and long gone from Iowa before I learned that a house across the street from us was part of the Underground Railroad. It belonged to a family named Harrison, and I played there often, with no idea of its history.

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    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      I’d be very interested in the WU quilt discussion you mention, if you can find it easily.

      Thanks very much for your compliments. I struggled a lot with how to present this, in a way that wasn’t simply, “this is the stupidest thing I ever read!!” 🙂 Really, that would be even less helpful than the original myth (book.) If there is any value to the book, it is in spurring some of us to look more deeply into the truth.

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  2. Michele

    This is a wonderful, thoughtful post. I followed your link here expecting to find a rehash of the myth with pretty pictures added, and was oh-so-pleasantly surprised.

    I read “Hidden in Plain View” a while back and was stuck immediately by the holes in the story. And yet, as with many things that “make a good story,” it gets traction. It’s sad that it’s being presented as fact to children.

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    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Thanks so much for reading. I can’t remember when I first ran across the topic. I read critiques on the book before ever seeing the book. And it was, frankly, so much worse than I even expected.

      Thanks again.

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  3. Joanne

    Your post is very well written and very interesting. There are so many “stories” about the Underground Railway it is sometimes challenging to sort fact from fiction. Thank you.

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  4. BJ Good

    I appreciate the research and facts you present. I attended a program about the Underground Railroad in 1850’s southern Iowa last fall jointly presented by the African American Museum of Iowa and Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Center. They included material gathered by the State Historical Museum of Iowa that included maps and sites in Iowa. As you point out reality is not pretty. We learn from truth.

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    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Thanks, BJ. I spent many (many) hours researching this and could have written MUCH more than what’s here. The program you attended sounds very interesting. I’ll check the AA museum’s website to see if there is more info.

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  5. Gudrun Biemann

    I sure enjoyed this post. The Underground Rail/ Quilts discussions always leaves me shaking my head. It is lovely to hear you shake your head in so diplomatic a fashion. Power to your pen….keyboard.

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  6. TextileRanger

    I am so glad to read this too. Like you said, it would be so hard to see patterns and colors in the dark. I also think, it takes so long to make a quilt! If I were going to signal someone, I would want to do it with something quick to create, AND quick to get rid of, so evidence wouldn’t be hanging around to convict me!
    There is another children’s book that teaches “history” that can’t be documented – about King Christian X of Denmark wearing a yellow star to show solidarity with the Jews in his country during Nazi occupation – but at least that author has a note in her book that there is no record of it ever happening.

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    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      There are so many things that become legends with no proof. And so many people willing to believe just because it makes a good story. We don’t know for sure that the king of Denmark DIDN’T wear a yellow star, do we? And we don’t know for sure that quilts were NEVER used to communicate. But … there is no evidence.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  7. KerryCan

    I’m so impressed with this post, Melanie! I wrote my Masters thesis about the slave spirituals and can remember hearing stories about the supposed quilt code even then. I was young and REALLY wanted to believe the stories were true–such a romantic notion. But I have never, in reading slave narratives for my thesis or in paying attention to the topic since the, seen a shred of evidence that the pretty story about the quilts was anything but a pretty story. And, yes, it DOES matter and it’s vital to communicate that the myth is simply a myth, for all the reasons you state!

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    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Wow, I’m so pleased to hear from you about this. I didn’t study the narratives myself. But I did search the Still book for citations of quilts and there are NONE that refer to them having any role in escape. And all the other historians that DID go back through the records, wondering if they missed something — NONE of them has found that evidence.

      Thanks so much for reading. I appreciate it very much.

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  8. Elizabeth E.

    Fabulous post. I remember giving a quilt to a friend of mine, who used to take it to the elementary schools, using it in a presentation of the underground quilt code. I cringed, as I had heard that most of that was apocryphal at best. I also cringed because she married an African American and had three daughters, and still kept repeating this. So glad to have your post to clear the air.

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  9. Pingback: In Others’ Words | The Snarky Quilter

  10. fredthethread

    It is interesting to read your views on this subject – your passion comes across so well. I must admit until I read a Tracey Chevalier’s book The Last Runaway I was completely ignorant of the underground railway. (The book does not suggest that quilts were used to help escapees – just that the protagonist felt it was her duty to help).

    I believe it is a good thing that children are taught in schools about slavery, like you say History is not always an easy place to go – but we can always learn from mistakes of the past.

    Chevalier’s book did give me a great desire to visit the US and see some of the beautiful quilts – we are planning to travel via New York and would be very interested to know if there are any good exhibitions or conferences to attend.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thank you for reading. It’s a fascinating subject. I’ve learned so much, just via this part of the subject. I hope you can visit the US and enjoy some of the wonderful sites. I’m from the central part of the country, so not very sure what you might find in NY for exhibitions.

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