19th Century US History

Black History how Freedom Quilts were used as Signals Maps Underground

Katrina Murphy's image for:
"Black History how Freedom Quilts were used as Signals Maps Underground"
Image by: 

The story of quilts used as signs and signals along the Underground Railroad is touching and inspirational, yet historical facts contradict the story into a myth. The Quilt Code became part of pop culture in the later 1900s in the form of books, children's literature and even academic curriculum. The use of quilt patterns is a beautiful method to commemorate the trials of those who escaped from slavery, but it also romanticizes the troubles rather than recognizing truths of hardship and suffering.

Lore of the Quilt Code tells us patterns used within quilts directed escaping slaves toward sanctuary or away from present dangers. The quilts hung on fences and clotheslines as inconspicuous signs.

Patterns such as these instructed escaping slaves:
Monkey Wrench: prepare tools for the journey
Wagon Wheel: prepare to board or load the wagon
Bear's Paw: take mountain trails and follow paw prints to food and water sources
Crossroads: direction to Cleveland, Ohio where various paths to freedom were available
Log Cabin: signified a safe person to talk to or advised one to seek shelter
Shoofly: identified nearby friends to offer assistance
Bowtie Dress: change clothes or disguise
Flying Geese: points the correct direction to follow
Drunkard's Path: instructed slaves to walk in a zig- zag to avoid pursuit
Star: advised to follow the North Star in addition to the Big Dipper toward Canada

Multiple books detail the use of Freedom Quilts, written as fiction and non-fiction, but proven sources are unavailable. In 1929, Ruth Finley authored a book detailing quilt patterns and named one, the Underground Railroad. This pattern is also referred to as Jacob's Ladder, Trail of the Covered Wagon, and Gone to Chicago, among many others. Modern quilt historians state this pattern did not exist prior to the Civil War.

In 1987, the video Hearts and Hands' featured a segment about the use of quilts in slavery escape, but there information is unfounded. Children's books, such as Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad Quilt in the Sky' and Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt' tell stories about the use of quilts to provide direction. The author of Sweet Clara recognizes her work as fiction, but the beloved story holds as historical fiction.

Most notable for making the Quilt Code a member of pop culture is the book, Hidden in Plain View', written by J. Tobin and R. Dobard in 1998. The stories of a quilt vendor, Ozella McDaniel Williams, became the basis for an entire book discussing the use of quilts as signs along the Underground Railroad. According to Ms. Williams, the story passed down through generations as an oral history and she reluctantly relayed the information to Ms. Tubin. The book increasingly gained popularity and Oprah Winfrey featured Mr. Dobard on her show along with the book.

Hidden in Plain View' received much controversy and criticism by scholars of slavery, the Underground Railroad and quilting. The sources listed in the book beg for skepticism and the authors had no evidence of such quilts. As with other books detailing the Freedom Quilt, all pictures of said quilts date to a much later time than pre-Civil War era. In addition to lack of sources, vendors familiar with Ms. Williams state the stories were an entertaining marketing strategy to sell her quilts. She passed away prior to publication, therefore was unavailable for scrutiny of her story, though her family continues to defend the tradition.

Barbara Brackman, quilter and historian, finds no firsthand accounts of quilts used in slavery escape, aside from obvious function of providing warmth. She states the patterns all date to post-war eras and commemoration was the purpose of giving such names to the patterns.

The use of quilts for direction is not feasible because quilting is time consuming and expensive. Mostly traveling at night, people were unable to see the quilt patterns. Searching by light would bring attention to their whereabouts.

Though quilts may not have provided direction along the Underground Railroad, messages in opposition to slavery adorned the quilts. Women of the North, both black women who escaped slavery and white women, designed quilts with anti-slavery slogans. In the 1830s, fairs displayed their quilts of opposition, with messages such as this:
"I'd sooner spend my days within
Some dark and dismal cave
Than to be guilty of the sin
Of holding one poor slave"

People appreciate the quilt patterns for their historical association though they are inaccurate. The named patterns should continue to provide recognition for the people who fought their way out of slavery. In social studies curriculum, the use of accurate information and truth of the hardships is valued and welcomed while the quilt patterns belong in Home Economics. Beautifully told, the stories will remain cherished folklore, but children require the truth of painful histories in their academic environments.

For more information, visit:

More about this author: Katrina Murphy

From Around the Web