The Secret Code of the Quilts 

By Henry M. Holden   

In our 2021 December issue of Randolph Life, we shared the story of the Underground Railroad. Since then, we have discovered new information about navigating the UGRR safely. It involves coded quilts, and it follows below.

The Underground Railroad was a network of safe routes and safe houses established in the early to mid-19 century. It was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape to a free state or Canada. 

All the underground railroad signal-to-slaves stories were orally transmitted for several generations, but there has never been written corroboration. This does not mean the codes and the story did not happen.

There is no doubt that there were communications between enslaved Africans on the run and safe houses. One story describes a small wood painted, black coachman, figure, used as a hitching post, or as a yard decoration,. It was in effect a signpost for fugitive black men. When the coachman’s light was lit, escapees knew that they had reached a safe house.

According to folklore, coded quilts were used to indicate a safe house along the underground railroad route. Often the quilts would be hanging from a clothesline or windowsill, in plain sight. The quilter embedded a kind of code, which by reading the shapes, colors and the design the enslaved person on the road could know the area, and whether there was any immediate danger, or even where to head next. 

Under certain circumstances the quilt may have a bow tie stitched on to the cloth. This would tell the fleeing person to dress in disguise to appear of a higher social status, for example, his master’s personal property. 

A bear’s paw would tell someone to follow an animal trail through the mountains to find water and food. A log cabin would indicate that the people there are safe to speak with.

This writer can picture quick fingers working either in secret, or with a small group of like-minded women also working on quilts. The quilters knew that if they were caught there would be serious repercussions. But that was secondary to their cause. They were knitting quilts that would show an escaped black man (and sometimes, but not often, his whole family) a route to freedom.

Escaping men were often told to follow the north star for safe journey into Canada. Often, they began the trip at the first sign of spring when the weather was warming, and the snow had melted in the north.

The quilt was embedded with a kind of code, so that by reading the shapes and motifs in the design the enslaved person would know if the area posed an immediate danger.

At its center, a quilt is a gathering of historical and creative clues in the form of fabrics, shapes, symbols, textures, and colors, knowledge known almost exclusively to the African culture.

Many ancestors of the enslaved people believe it happened, but others question the legitimacy of such events.

Sharon Tindall is a Virginia-based quilter, educator, and one in a tradition of contemporary quilters who designed informational works  inspired by this “quilt code.”

“When I’m creating a quilt, I’m focused on the purpose of the quilt,” says Tindall. “I’m thankful I am able to create something of comfort.”

Not all believe the quilts are coded, but Tindall is a believer and defender of the codes. For Tindall, the quilts become vehicles for the voices and footprints of people running for their lives. 

For Tindall, a quilt can be like a prayer. The pretext for her belief in the quilt codes is not unlike a person trying to explain supporting evidence for a belief in God. Simply put, Tindall is a believer.

“I have the gifts God has given me and I am returning them back to Him through the quilt codes.” 

Quilts were often made to commemorate important family events such as marriage, a birth, or moving to a new place. Often made from scraps of various cloths, it gives physical, even functional, form to a family or individual’s past and present. 

Prior to 1999, the codes were unheard of even in the African American quilting community. That’s according to Marsha MacDowell, a quilt scholar and director of the Quilt Index, a massive online catalog of more than 90,000 quilts. 

In 1999, Jaqueline Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard published Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. The story made it through the usual established protocols of the the New York Times Book Review, NPR, and others. National Geographic and the Kennedy Center developed elementary school curricula that referenced the codes.

It should be noted that none of these institutions ever questioned the veracity of Tobin and Dobard’s claims; instead, they published book reviews as human-interest pieces and the public accepted it as fact. When we see an inspiring story online, from publications that have been around for more than 100 years there should be no doubt.

Soon the story had stand-alone status and there was no stopping it.

“Almost every February, stories appear in papers across the country,” MacDowell explains, referencing African American History Month. “If you’re wondering about our irritation, I think it’s more frustrating that the codes keep getting presented as fact.”

That is to say, the authenticity of quilt codes is, among other things, a matter of emphasis. Maybe the protocols for experiences of belief versus fact are just different. When a person believes something, they have no need for proof. They don’t need dates, examples, nor firsthand accounts. They don’t have to do anything except believe. For something to qualify as a fact, it needs evidence. To define “fact” is no easy undertaking. 

Some historians float the issue that many of the quilt patterns cited as directives for enslaved peoples probably did not yet exist during the height of the Underground Railroad, between 1850 and 1860. Based on surveys of quilts made during these years, the evidence for some of these patterns just isn’t there, breaking the spell of this captivating story.

By 1793 enslaved Africans, were being imported in large numbers. There was a great deal of money to be made in the slave trade and for cotton farmers. White plantation owners began to see threats by black men and women who wanted their freedom. 

In 1793, and again in 1850, Congress passed the fugitive slave laws (which were repealed in 1864) that provided for the seizure and return of runaway Africans who escaped the plantation. 

Between 1850 and 1860 many saw an extreme need for the codes. White plantation owners began to fear for their lives and lobbied Congress to pass a Fugitive Slave Act. 

The first Fugitive Slave act of 1793 was a federal law that was written with the intent to enforce Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3, of the US Constitution which requires the return of escaped black men to the plantation. It was ineffective so Congress passed a second Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. It imposed sever penalties on the white offenders thus some say in creating the codes for survival.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 said captured fugitives could not testify on their own behalf, nor were they permitted a trial by jury. Heavy penalties were imposed upon federal marshals who refused to enforce the law from where a fugitive had escaped.

The pros and cons as to whether there were codes is a debate that occurs every February during Black History Month and probably will continue for years to come.  

 

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