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Quilt Codes of the Underground Railroad
Transcript of Quilt Codes of the Underground Railroad
What is the Underground Railroad?
Prior to 1860, America captured and enslaved about four million people from Africa to primarily work as laborers on Southern plantations
The Civil War (1860-1865) was over the battle of States' rights, as well as the freedom of slaves
The Underground Railroad was a secret route taken by fugitives to escape to freedom in the North, with safe hiding places being called "stations"
Most slaves traveled 10-20 miles each night, traveling only when it was dark
The would stop at "stations" or "depots" during the day to rest, usually in outbuildings or barns
People who helped them along the way were "conductors"
While resting at one station, messages were sent to the next station that runaways were on their way
Canada was known as "The Promised Land" and the Ohio River as "The River Jordan" because it marked the boundary between free and slave states
This meant the slaves were to gather all the tools they might need on the journey to freedom. Tools meant something to help build shelters, compasses, or tools to serve as weapons to defend themselves.
The theory is that, because all slaves shared an oral history of storytelling coupled with knowledge of textile production and African art, quilts became a way for complex messages of escape to be shared secretly
The patterns told slaves how to get ready to escape, what to do, and where to go
Once stitched, the coded quilts were "aired" out of windows of slave cabins as secret maps
A Piece of Folklore
This use of quilts in the Underground Railroad became a popular theory in the 1990s.
Some quilt scholars and historians consider the "code" to be lacking in fact, while others are sure it's true
What we present today is therefore considered 'folklore' or simply a theory, rather than canon history - think Betsy Ross sewing the American flag or George Washington cutting down the cherry tree
It has long been theorized that "Robin Hill" on the corner of 9th Street and Lower New Harmony Road, was a "station" on the Underground Railroad
Quilt Blocks and Their Meanings!
This was the second pattern to be displayed, which signaled the slaves to pack all their belongings that would go in a wagon or that would be used during their journey. this was a signal for the slaves to think about what essentials they would need to survive on the trip.
This pattern would have significance to slaves skilled in a craft, such as carpentry. It was also a symbol to "steal away", a visual equivalent to the popular spiritual song "Steal Away", which many slaves knew and sang. The pattern told slaves to "run with faith" to the west - northwest territories.
It's believed that this pattern was sometimes used to help fugitives follow the path of the bear, and to identify landmarks on the edge of the plantation.
Once through the mountains, slaves were to travel to the crossroads. The main crossroad was Cleveland, Ohio. Any quilt hung before this one would have given directions to Ohio.
This pattern was used to let the slaves know where safe houses were. People who helped the Underground Railroad may have identified themselves as friends to slaves on the run by tracing this pattern in dirt as a signal. This quilt told slaves to look for this symbol on their journey to freedom. It was also a symbol to set up a "home" in a free state.
Slaves' clothes were often tattered and easy to spot. This pattern meant that someone would bring the slave nicer clothes to help them blend in with the free blacks.
This pattern told slaves to follow migrating geese north towards Canada and freedom. this pattern was used as directions as well as the best season for slaves to escape. Geese fly north in the spring and summer...flying geese pointed to the direction, north, for the slaves to move. Also, geese would have to stop at waterways along the journey in order to rest and eat. Slaves were to take their cues on direction, timing and behavior from the migrating geese.
This was a clear warning for the slaves to move in a staggering fashion so as to elude any following slave hunters. It was suggested that the slaves even double back to elude their pursuers.
North Star (Evening Star)
This instructed the slaves to follow the North Star to Canada and freedom.
Hobbyist Quilts Today
It's still popular today to create entire quilts out of the supposed Underground Railroad quilt blocks...
Popular Fiction Titles About the Code
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt
by Deborah Hopkinson
Under the Quilt of Night
by Deborah Hopkinson
The Patchwork Path
by Bettye Stroud
The Runaway Quilt
by Jennifer Chiaverini
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