I reviewed the holdings in my personal quilt library this week. It’s always a treat to touch each book, flip pages, remember why I keep it. There was one I didn’t open, but merely re-shelved. If I numbered my 81 quilting books from 1 to 100 (yes, I meant that — just imagine a gap in numbering…) with 1 being best and 100 being worst, there is a qualifier for 100. Hands down, the worst quilt book I own is Hidden in Plain View.
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.
The book tells Williams’ tale of 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.
Sounds intriguing, yes? Indeed it is, and intrigue led the book to bestseller status.
What about it is so bad? And if it’s so bad, why do I keep it?
As a piece of writing, it is badly done. Full of breathless suppositions and conjectures, the authors repeatedly ask questions rather than state conclusions. Facts and fiction are woven together to try to create a whole cloth. But there are holes throughout. Since the book was published, extensive research has shown many errors of fact. In addition, there is no supporting evidence of the premise. You can read a lengthy summary of the Underground Railroad quilt code stories, and evidence refuting them, here.
It’s not at all clear if the story, either as told by Williams or as reported by the authors, is intended to be a fraud. Any or all of them may have been conveying history as they actually understood it, rather than with intent to profit off fiction. Either way, between the poor writing and the poor scholarship, this is a book that had a much larger audience than it deserved.
I keep the book because we need to keep a record of myth as well as truth. Those who know the difference can show it most easily when they have both to draw from, including myths in their original form.
As I said in the linked post, “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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I know two black quilters whose goal is to put a stake in the heart of the Underground Railroad quilt code myth. Now that the myth is being taught in schools as history, they’ve got a tough job on their hands. One of them thinks that the story was made up to keep a gullible customer coming back.
It is a tough job, and I don’t expect we’ll ever be able to correct the record completely. But the more of us who know, the better.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
I had to disabuse a fellow teacher who was wanting to use the Underground Railroad quilt story as the foundation of a major unit of study in her class. She wanted so badly to believe it was true. But, speaking from a purely pragmatic point of view, as long as quilts took to make in those days, and as dear as fabric was, is it really possible that large numbers of quilts could or would have been make quickly to such specific code requirements?
Well, no. Or perhaps it is possible, but the probability is incredibly low. Clothing rations for slaves (in most places) were very meager. Bedding was cheaper to provide as blankets rather than fabric for quilts. And as you say, the time involved is more than imaginable, even with today’s equipment.
Thanks for taking a look, and for helping share the truth.
I couldn’t agree more! This story drives me nuts!
Thanks for taking a look, and feel free to pass it on.
I’ve expressed my opinion on this topic to you before. I’m glad you continue to try to set the record straight. I was just talking to a friend, a retired 1st-grade teacher, who was not happy to hear me say that the stories about quilts being used for the UG railroad were simply pretty stories. She loved thoe stories and had been teaching them, as fact, to her students for years . . .
It’s a shame the story came out the way it did, and so quickly ensconced itself in the public’s imagination. That means we have to pick it off one at a time, like with your friend. Thanks for helping do the dirty work.
P.S. The worst quilt book I’ve seen is a block pattern book published by Sterling Press. The enlarged photos show very poorly-made samples. You’d expect that single blocks chosen as illustrations would have the seam intersections line up, right? And these were simple, basic blocks, not complicated ones. Were I the author of the book I’d be downright embarrassed.
ha! I hope you don’t own that book!
In November I will present “Every Quilt Tells a Story” to two non-quilting groups. Along with a (very) condensed history of quilting I will bring up the UGRR quilt myth. I do that because I have heard non-quilters who have believed the myth to be true, at least in part.
And I’ve heard many quilters who believe it, too. Thanks for sharing the truth.