Were Quilts Used as Underground Railroad Maps?

Legend has it that runaway slaves sought clues in the patterns of handmade quilts.

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Fact, fiction, folklore, or a bit of all three: Did runaway slaves seek clues in the patterns of handmade quilts, strategically placed by members of the Underground Railroad?

This ongoing debate surfaced as front page news earlier this year when a New York City Central Park memorial to Frederick Douglass was slated to include two plaques referring to this code. Historians cried foul—loudly. There is no evidence for such a code, says Giles Wright, director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission. "I know of no historian who supports this idea, and it's extremely rare to get that kind of consensus."

Mention of the quilt symbols in that plaque's text will now be omitted. But the quilt key legend it self remains very much above ground. Since 1999, when Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard published their bestseller, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, the secret-code story has woven its way into American folklore.

But historians note that the sole source for that story was one woman—Ozella McDaniel Williams, a retired educator and quilt maker in Charleston, S.C., who recounted for Tobin a family tradition that had been passed down to her through the generations. Embedded in 12 quilt patterns, she said, were directions to aid fugitive slaves on their journey to freedom. Depending on the pattern, a seemingly innocent quilt left on a porch or fence or hung in a window could signal to slaves on the plantation to get ready to escape (Monkey Wrench pattern), go north (North Star pattern), or zigzag to throw off pursuers (the Drunkard's Path pattern).

Although Williams died shortly before the book was published, her 73-year-old niece, Serena Wilson of Columbus, Ohio, says she also learned about the hidden maps from Williams's mother. "The quilt code was kept secret because it was dangerous to talk about escaping," Wilson says.

Misinterpret. But there is no reference for the code beyond that family, contends Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. "There's no mention anywhere by anyone, African-American or white, of any quilt being used at any time." Nor do coded quilts from the period survive. Quilt historian Barbara Brackman notes that there is abundant evidence that slaves did sew quilts and that abolitionists made quilts to raise money for their antislavery activities. But some of the patterns that are said to be part of the Underground Railroad code did not exist until well after the Civil War, Brackman says.

Tobin believes her book has been misinterpreted. Numerous details ascribed to the story—like hanging quilts along the way to indicate safe houses—"simply aren't in the book," she says. Moreover, "We make it clear that this was Ozella's story only," she says, and that such codes "could have" been used in this way and only on one particular plantation. "We're not talking about hundreds or thousands of folks using this code," says Tobin. "The story has grown in ways that we had not intended."