Quilt Myth #2: Quilts Helped African-American Slaves Escape

Let’s start with the punchline: NO. Or at least, NO, there is NO evidence that this is true.

The myth is that quilts were used in an “Underground Railroad Quilt Code” to help slaves escape their bondage.

The story was propagated by authors Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D., in the book Hidden in Plain View. The book was published in 1999. Though it was not the first reference to the idea that quilts helped slaves escape to the north, it is the most famous.

Author Tobin met Ozella McDaniel Williams in 1994. Williams was a South Carolina quilt vendor who 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. A mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times is used to support the premise.

The Evidence
Strong evidence in support of this story 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.

When the book was published, historians eagerly reviewed the possibilities to answer the question: Were quilts used to help guide slaves to freedom? 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.

In short, NO, there is no evidence the myth is true. 

I’ve written much, much more about this in a prior post on the Underground Railroad Quilt Code. It is a lengthy post, which is why I did not recreate it in full here, and I encourage you to take a look if you’re interested to know more.

I see this myth repeated too frequently, including a reference to it just the other day. The story is included in school lesson plans and incorporated into popular fiction. As I said at the end of 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.”

If you’d like to read about Quilt Myth #1, please see this post.


21 thoughts on “Quilt Myth #2: Quilts Helped African-American Slaves Escape

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I think there are multiple novels. 😦 There are plenty of lies in our world, and plenty of liars, and plenty of people willing to believe lies because it makes a story they like. Just really damn discouraging…

  1. snarkyquilter

    Yes, let’s not have the facts, or the lack of them, get in the way of a good story. I recall that members of my guild reacted like children deprived of a treat when I tried to temper their enthusiasm for the UGRR myth.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Well, thank you for trying to teach them truth, anyway. It’s discouraging to see this come up over and over. It’s almost like Americana folk tales. But for those, at least most people realize there is a little truth woven into a lot of story, rather than the other way around.

  2. KerryCan

    You know how strongly I feel abut this topic, Melanie, and I think it’s great that you are working to dispel the myth. I am horrified to say that my guild is apparently planning an exhibit glorifying this myth at our show this fall. I tried to make the case that we would only embarrass ourselves if we did so but, as has been pointed out, romantic, prettied-up myths die hard . . .

  3. Chris

    Funny that this should be a topic on your blog as I was just reading a post on another blog “The Sewing Lawyer” concerning a speech that was given by the husband of a quilter. I cringed when I read his reference to the “Underground Railroad” and thought to myself won’t this myth ever die. While I thought his “speech” was entertaining for the rest of itself, this reference is one that is a constant reminder of how incorrect information continues to be repeated and taken as truth. I was only surprised that he did not reference his wife’s errors being intentional much like the Amish, who intentionally put in a mistake because only “God makes anything perfect”. I myself subscribe to finished is better than perfect and if you cannot see it from a galloping horse I call it good.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Ah, yes, the Amish myth — how could I forget? (ugh…)

      There is more research being done these days into why people hold their beliefs even in the face of contrary facts. Even if the man who spoke of it was told the truth, he might not care. It is confusing…

      Thanks for reading and commenting today.

  4. katechiconi

    There will always be those who prefer a romantic fiction to a grittier and harder-to-bear truth. My impulse with the URQC is always to question who gave the slaves the code book to decipher the message, how did they know which houses to check for a quilt on the fence, and how did the owners of those houses know which safe route the slaves should take? It’s a pretty fancy, but that’s all it is, I believe. The truth is what truly sets us free, not fairytales.

  5. Nann

    Thanks for both this post and the previous UGRR post. When I give my quilt history program I always include a part about dispelling the myth. People are disappointed because it is such a romantic notion.

  6. onecreativefamily

    I have read many articles and a few books that agree with you. Something my husband has asked of people who believe the myth is how did the slaves know the code of these quilts. Many of the block which were said to have described the path to take are used in several areas under different names. So who knew which block was actually what was intended. These are questions that I needed answers to and like you never could find the proof. You are right we need to honor the slaves and the members of the Underground Railroad by knowing the truth.

    thank you.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting. There are a lot of problems with the blocks and the names. There was really no means of conveying some common name for block styles. The only publisher to provide quilt patterns was Godey’s Ladies’ Book, and there were very few published there. Slaves, generally, wouldn’t have had access to those few, and if they did, there’s no reason to think they would teach them, calling them the same names that their owners did. Some of the block styles, including Log Cabin, weren’t “invented” until after the Civil War. And as you say, blocks often had (and still have!) multiple names, or multiple block styles for the same name. There really aren’t answers to these issues, or to so many more. That’s why it’s a story I just can’t believe. Thanks again.

  7. katlorien

    How very interesting I just read your older, longer post And very timely as our group just finishing their underground railway quilts. Everyone was keen to tellll their school age grand children about it. The tutor is a retired school teacher herself. I admit to seeing holes in the logic of how the quilt s could be used as instructions, in another book I read, the runaway had stitched numbers into her petticoat to remind her of how many days walk she had between each landmark.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks very much for reading both posts. It’s a lot to digest! Yes, there are holes in those quilts! I’ll admit I also find it offensive to hand-wave and pretend all African culture is the same, and all slaves came from the same languages and traditions. Thanks for your comment.

  8. tierneycreates

    I know I get a little ill when well meaning people ask me if I have heard about the Underground Railroad quilts – I think it was just a way to sell more quilt patterns!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      “Interesting” and “confusing” are two words I try to remember to use about things I don’t understand. I really don’t understand why people can even hear about the facts and STILL SAY they don’t really care, because they like the story as is. That is, you might agree, both interesting and confusing. :/


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