Friday, February 6, 2015

The Quilting Codes Of Old...!`

I'm sure that many of you have heard of the "Underground Railroad" and it's use in helping slaves escape. This story involves one of the reported ways of communicating with the runaways.

Many quilters, including my own mother, have no doubt these stories are true Regardless of the factual history, I thought you might like to know a little of the history of the "Codes in the Quilts!"!

The ‘Secret Code’ Of The Underground Railroad
By Debra Kelly on Thursday, February 5, 2015

According to the popular story, slaves running north on the Underground Railroad were often sent secret messages through quilts. Conveniently and casually hung on a clothesline or over a railing, the pattern on the quilt would tell them valuable information, like whether or not it was safe to stop. Thing is, it hasn’t really been found to be true, and the earliest reference we have to the idea come from a 1999 book with a single source—a woman who, conveniently, sold quilts.

If you’re a part of the Underground Railroad, responsible for the safety of slaves fleeing oppression in the South for freedom in the North, it seems like a pretty logical thing that you’d devise a way of relaying messages and information without raising the suspicion of slave-hunters, slave-owners, and nosy neighbors that might want to make a few bucks.

According to the story, these secret messages were embedded in the designs of handmade quilts that would be hung in windows or draped over a railing. Those that knew the code would recognize the patterns that meant someone was watching, or that it was going to be safe to try to escape, or that it was a good time to stay hidden for a bit.

Patterns have even been given names—the zigzag pattern that was supposed to tell people that they needed to throw pursuers off their trail became known as the Drunkard’s Path pattern, and the pattern that was supposed to indicate that it was almost time to make an escape was called the Monkey Wrench.

The whole code system was outlined in a 1999 book called Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad.

It’s a very cool idea, but there’s really not much to show that it was ever a thing.

The book recounts the family stories of one woman, named Ozalla McDaniel Williams. A retired quilt-maker herself, it was Williams who told the authors all about the secret codes that were built into quilts. That’s been the only source for anything of the sort, and most historians agree that there’s absolutely nothing to it. But the myth has taken off, to such a degree that it’s making some people downright angry.

In 2007, New York City was planning a massive, $15.5-million project that was going to be paying tribute to speaker, abolitionist, and writer Frederick Douglass. An escaped slave himself, Douglass was going to be honored by the installation of a 2.5-meter (8 ft) statue that included a granite quilt. The quilt was going to be patterned with the secret codes and messages that designers thought Douglass would have relied on during his journey North. (If the codes had actually existed, that is.)

The book was elevated to something bizarrely loved, even being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It supporters seemed strangely willing to overlook the fact that there was no other historical evidence for the secret, coded language, and even the book’s authors have said that the whole thing has been blown pretty far out of proportion.

There have been no other supporting stories, no appropriately patterned quilts have ever been found that date back to the Civil War, and no songs that reference the phenomenon, either.

There are, however, a huge amount of modern-day books that have been written about it—including children’s books that highlight the idea of secret codes in quilts guiding slaves to freedom. In only a few short years, the whole concept has been firmly cemented into the idea of what was going on during the years of the Underground Railroad.

Ultimately, the statue of Douglass was redesigned, a step that historians have said went a long way in trying to undo what might become one of America’s next great historical myths.

Myth or fact, this story might just be another one of those that we will never find a satisfactory answer to. Many little bits of our history are like that, ya know?

Coffee in the kitchen once more. Might rain again!


linda m said...

That is very interesting. I remember hearing something on TV about the coded quilts. My hubby used to live in an old house that was part of the underground railroad - secret passages and all - and when we checked it out at the local historical society the lady there also mentioned the quilts. Have a great weekend. Still cold here with more snow expected this weekend.

Hermit's Baby Sis said...

Bubba -
True or not, the various patterns of quilts, as you and I both know well, have such interesting names that they lend credence to the legend. Crossroads, Log Cabin, Flying Geese, Bear Paw... one can easily read something into the design and name if he wanted. I prefer to think it's true. But mainly I enjoy our quilts for the love that went into the making, even if they were pieved by such long ago family that we never even knew them, like Great-Aunt Jenny. And we use ours daily, don't we?
How about you other readers - do you use your quilts, or are they just for show? I'll bet if you are readers of this blog, you're a user!
Big hugs, and apologies for the novella ~

Mamahen said...

Would love to be able to prove or disprove this.
I also chose to believe it. I also use my quilts every winter :))

JO said...

I think if we want to believe it then we can whether true or not.

Love quilts but don't have an old one like some of you. That would be so wonderful to own one.

Chickenmom said...

They may have had some type of signals. During the Depression, marks were made on fences and trees near homes that would be safe to ask for food. I'll take the rain. It was -5 early this morning!

Judy said...

I heard about the quilts long before the book in '99. It seemed to be common knowledge amongst old quilters in the southeastern corner of Kansas.

I have several old quilts. One predates 1900 from a great-grandmother; two, my maternal grandmother pieced before 1960 and were quilted thirty years later; one, my mother pieced as a teen in the '30s. Still have a tub of blocks Mom pieced I am slowly turning into quilts for family members as they get married.

LOL, so yes, every bed in my house has a quilt on it and one at the foot in case you get cold in the night and a quilt on the back of every chair in the living room. No reason to be cold at my house or turn up the heat! My really old quilts are not used cause if anything happened to them...

Everybody help yourself to a piece of that apple cake I made, the almond flour really sets it off.

Dizzy-Dick said...

Maybe I should ask my wife what the code is in the quilt tops that she makes?