Underground Railroad history

In her magazine article, Wilson says the "Quilt Code" was used by slaves in the area of Charleston, South Carolina and southern Georgia, and that escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad traveled across the Appalachians to Ohio (and then maybe to Niagara Falls, 200 miles east) and eventually into Canada.  But the map in Hidden in Plain View shows no such route.

In fact, Underground Railroad historians agree that the very few escaped slaves who headed north were not from Georgia and the Carolinas, but from border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia). By one historian's reckoning, more than 99% of escaped slaves traveled south, not north, blending into cities like Charleston itself. Only a small percentage of fugitives participated in the Underground Railroad; most ran away on their own, spontaneously, whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Map courtesy National Parks Service.

Christopher Densmore, Curator of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, observes that 

....[t]he problem with the general picture [of the "quilt code" story] is that it does not fit with the narratives of fugitive slaves, or with the accounts recorded in William Still's The Underground Railroad (1872) or with more recent scholarship, notably John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweniger's Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (1999). These accounts stress the individual and ad-hoc nature of most escapes and attempted escapes that were done on individual initiative and involved individuals or small groups of people. Hidden in Plain View appears to assume a regular flow of fugitives from South Carolina into Canada. According to the 1850 census, which attempted to document the number of fugitive slaves, South Carolina had 16 fugitives out of a total population of 284,984 enslaved people.

Even if the number of "code" participants was ten times the recorded number of fugitives, wouldn't it simply be easier to communicate with a whisper or gesture?

Wilson and Kempís slippery grasp of Underground Railroad history is further demonstrated by the 2006 version of their new website. Historian Kate Clifford Larson points out some significant errors:

  • The site claims on its "Research/Links" page that Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and Ann Marie Weems were enslaved in Oklahoma. This is not true; Weems was from Washington DC, and Harper was from Baltimore, where she was born and raised a free woman.
  • The site erroneously claims on its FAQs page that there were "large numbers of free Black in all of the states in existence". The table offered as proof shows the number of free blacks owning real estate in certain cities, which says nothing about the total free black population. For example, while the table lists 13 free blacks owning property in Boston, the city's original records show an actual free black population of 603. But in 1850, almost 95% of African-Americans lived in the 16 slave states. In four of those states, more than 99% of African-Americans were slaves. And in only five (Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey) did free blacks constitute more than 6% of the total African-American population; one-third were children under age 14. Until he reached free territory, nearly all the adult blacks a fugitive would meet would be slaves themselves.

Giles Wright, Underground Railroad expert and director of the Afro-American History Program of the New Jersey Historical Commission, asks why a handful of Charleston-area slaves would have to develop an elaborate Quilt Code to share information. Some "Code" proponents claim the quilts were traditional oral historians they call "fabric griots". (Actually, a griot's work was not restricted to historic fact; it included creating and performing what are best described as ballads of praise.) But couldn't people with a strong oral tradition just tell each other? Why would this "code" make them risk the long, indirect route Wilson and Ozella describe - one not mentioned in any other source, and one that not even Hidden in Plain View's own maps show? Wright documents many other errors in the "Quilt Code" story, calling it "nonsense," "sheer conjecture" and "speculation" which "greatly misrepresents" black history.

In an email to me, Kemp characterized Wright's objections as "minor". Nevertheless, in 2006 Wilson and Kempís website abandoned Wilson's "Code" route for one more sweeping, extending it "[n]ot just North to Canada but also South through Florida to the Carribean; through Texas to Mexico, and further West to California; to New England where they would take whaling vessels to the Pacific North West."

Some "Code" proponents explain its absence from  slave and abolitionist autobiographies by claiming a culture of secrecy prevented its revelation. This is the principle behind every conspiracy theory: absence of evidence proves a massive coverup. Yet even the narratives published while the system was operating describe escape methods in detail. Since then, Underground Railroad participants and their descendants have revealed not only their names, escape methods, and the code words used in written messages; they point out hiding places and safe houses with historic plaques.

"Code" proponents ask us to believe that while these secrets could safely be revealed, the Code somehow could not. In other words, abolitionists were entrusted with fugitive slaves' very lives, but somehow not entrusted with the "Code" (but then, how would an abolitionist would have known to hang a quilt outside to signal the house was "safe"?). Revelation of the "Code" would, it seems, have to wait until Ozella McDaniel Williams somehow determined that Jacqueline Tobin was the worthy recipient of this great secret.

How were quilts supposedly used?

The heart of the "Quilt Code" - its most essential piece - is the connection between a block's name and the message it is supposed to convey. So in order to understand it at all, we need to know the pre-Civil War name for each of the blocks used.

Modern quilters often think familiar traditional blocks were "born" with the names we call them today.  But quilt historian Barbara Brackman points out that quite the opposite is true.  Well after quilt patterns were first published nationwide in the late 1890s, a block's name changed from region to region, as the author of an 1894 Scribner's Magazine article observed. Thus there is no way for us to know whether the names we give quilt blocks today are the same names used 150 years ago. 

Even if we throw out the idea that in the "code," a block's name is meaningless, and believe that the image itself were the message, if any of the "Quilt Code" blocks had different names in the 1850s (or if a name used then for one block refers to a different block today), we cannot know which blocks were used; we can certainly have no idea what meanings they had.  In other words, even if a "code" did exist, the "Quilt Code" block kits sold today are likely more fiction than fact.  And every new "Code" proponent claims new meanings for certain blocks and adds others to the list. 

"Code" proponents cannot agree on how quilts were supposedly used, and who used them:

  • Most claim they were hung as signals - from a clothesline, a window, over a porch, over a roof, or even from a church steeple.  Kemp, for example, says that such quilts "let the conductor know if I can provide clothing or food or lodging and if it is safe for that group to come to the house" and that "The services were usually Bow Tie/Sue Bonnet = clothes to dress up like the free Black, affluent society, Log Cabin = sheltar, Nine patch = food."  She admits that "[e]very quilt in the country hung out in the daytime since no one had washing machines or dryers! Every quilt was not an UGRR Coded Quilt even if it had the patterns on it", but does not explain how fugitives could determine which were "coded" quilts were displayed as signals, and which quilts were simply being hung out to air.  

In late 2005 Kemp also began asserting that quilts containing blocks "that represent the longitude and latitude of maps of the period prior to 1840's" were actually "carried by UGRR conductors as physical land maps". The string ties on the quilt, writes Kemp on the family website, "were used as the longitude and latitude of the map that would show safe houses, bodies water, stations, places you should not go and plantations."

Others - including Kemp's own great-aunt Ozella - say they were used as mnemonic devices - a "playbook" to be memorized before escape.  

Boswell says they were used in both ways and that quilts in one particular pattern (the Rose Wreath) were given as congratulatory gifts to slaves who escaped to Canada, but she has never produced any of these award quilts.   

To complicate matters further, Kemp now claims on the family website that the only person who would know the Code would be the conductor of the escape - and then only if "they were from a tribe that used that language, then he or she could read the language in the quilt."  If UGRR participants in the area hung out coded quilts with a different "language," or if the conductor were incapacitated, lost, or captured, it seems the fugitives were out of luck.  

  • Some claim a "sampler" quilt including each pattern was used; others, that only one pattern was used in each quilt.  Boswell says the sampler was used to teach all the "codes," so that escaped slaves could read the single-pattern "signal" quilts that would be displayed along the way. In June 2002, Boswell also said two identical "code" quilts would be made, one of which was given to the slaveowner's wife, who would then hang the quilts out on "the line every morning, and they had no idea they were helping to free slaves." (Since there are around a dozen patterns in the "Code", one wonders when these slaves had time to do anything but quilt.)

  • Some proponents claim the quilts were used by "slaves and abolitionists" without racial distinction. Others, such as Wilson, claim they were used only by blacks (both slave and free), who devised the patterns directly from African sources and shared them among themselves.  But in a 2004 lecture, Boswell claimed that abolitionists traveled from plantation to plantation taking a census of slaves, doing reconnaissance, and teaching slaves the "Code".    

All the block names "Code" proponents use are those in common use after 1930 - about the time Wilson's Grandma Nora Belle (Ozella's mother, and the "Code" source for both Wilson and Ozella) would have been quilting. How can anyone assert  these are the same names used during the Underground Railroad years? Why, if Wilson learned the "Quilt Code" from the same source as her aunt Ozella and Wilson passed on the "Code" to Kemp, do the three women differ on what message the blocks were supposed to convey and how they were used? Why are there so many conflicting stories about which blocks were used, what they meant, and how they quilts were used? Wouldn't it have been important for a consistent message to be transmitted?  

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