Fabrics available to slaves 

Those unaware of the history of textiles often mistakenly presume that the first quilts were crazy-patched, made from dressmaking scraps or saved from worn-out garments.  In fact, quilts started as a luxury, available only to the well-off.  Fabric was expensive, and rather than being cut to fit the wearer, except for high-fashion clothing, garments were boxy in form, leaving very few scraps left over for quiltmaking.  Even among whites, until the 1840s few people had more than one or two changes of clothing, all of which had to be sewn by hand. 

This was particularly true in the antebellum south, which imported virtually every manufactured good from the North or overseas.  Local and state laws pointedly discouraged manufacturing, causing some Southerners deep concern the more inevitable war appeared. The region’s few textile mills were small, averaging only 12-24 looms (New England mills commonly had 10 times as many).  Most such mills were devoted to producing warp for home weaving, a few checks and plaids, and utility cloth for the plantation or prison on which the mills were situated. This utility cloth was commonly known as "Negro cloth," and was a coarse, unbleached or brown-colored cotton similar to today’s osnaburg.  (In Textiles in America, Florence Montgomery notes that 19th century osnaburg was made in "blue and white or brown and white stripes, checks, and solid colors".)  As its name suggests, Negro cloth was commonly used for slave and prisoner clothing. In fact, the number of Southern mills decreased by one-third between 1840-1850 - which required  slaveowners to buy more "Negro cloth" from the Northern mills that offered it.   For more pictures of the type of fabrics used in slave clothing, click here.

Fugitive slaves, known as "contrabands," who escaped across Union lines in Virginia, 1862.  (Library of Congress collection)  

Unlike blankets, quilts were an extravagance that used two layers of fabric and a great deal of thread - another "import"; because of seam allowances, patchwork quilts used up even more fabric and thread.  They also took much more time to make than blankets.   Even after commercially produced cotton fabric and thread became more affordable, quiltmaking was costly in both time and in materials.   On many plantations, slaves were issued not clothing but yard goods, once a year, and would have to sew their clothes themselves whenever they had the time.  If those garments wore out, they had to do without until next year.  

Certainly the WPA slave narratives contain references to slaves making quilts.  But if the average enslaved field hand didn't have dressmaking scraps or yard goods, couldn't they have used their worn-out clothing to make patchwork?  Consider these observations about field hands' clothing, compiled in 1853:

Mr. Weld has shown by abundant and unimpeachable testimony, that “the clothing of slaves by day, and their covering by night, is not adequate either for comfort or decency.” (p. 40, &c.)

Virginia: Hon. T. T. Bouldin, a slaveholder, in a speech in Congress, Feb. 16, 1835, said: “He knew that many negroes had died from exposure to weather,” and added, “They are clad in a flimsy fabric that will turn neither wind nor water.”

Maryland: “The slaves, naked and starved, often fall victims to the inclemencies of the weather.” (Geo. Buchanan, M. D., of Baltimore, 1791.)

Georgia, &c.: “We rode through many rice swamps, where the blacks were very numerous”—“working up to the middle in water, men and women nearly naked.” (Wm. Savery, of Philadelphia, Minister Friends' Soc., 1791.)

Tennessee, &c.: “In every slaveholding State many slaves suffer extremely, both while they labor and when they sleep, for want of clothing to keep them warm.” (Rev. John Rankin.)

A young fugitive slave 

(US Army collection)

The South generally: “Men and women have many times scarce clothes enough to hide their nakedness, and boys and girls, ten and twelve years old, are often quite naked among their masters' children.” (John Woolman, 1757. Journal, &c., p. 150.)

“Both male and female go without clothing at the age of 8 or 10 years.” (John Parrish, Minister Soc.Friends, 1804.) Same testimony from many others more recently.    

Alabama, 1819: “Hardly a rag of clothing on them.”—“Generally the only bedding was a blanket.” (S. E. Maltby.)   

Virginia: “Two old blankets.” (Wm. Leftwich.) Advertisements of fugitives every year often describe them as “ragged” or “nearly naked.”  

Florida: “They were allowed two suits of clothes a year; viz: one pair of trowsers with a shirt or frock of osnaburgh, for summer; and for winter, one pair of trowsers and a jacket of negro-cloth, with a baize shirt and a pair of shoes. Some allowed hats, and some did not; and they were generally, I believe, allowed one blanket in two years. Garments of similar materials were allowed the women.” (Wm. Ladd, late of Minot, Me.)

“The slaves are generally without beds or bedsteads.”—“I have seen men and women at work in the fields, more than half naked.” (Testimony furnished by Rev. C. S. Renshaw, from his friend.)

Frederick Douglass, who as a slave had seen conditions firsthand, concurred:

Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes; the whole of which could not have cost more than seven dollars....The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these.

While several observers describe a "coarse" or "thin" "blanket" being distributed to each adult slave every year or two, none so much as mentions a quilt.

If the average slave (not the small minority of house servants, craftsmen and others hired out to work in town) was barely covered in a "ragged" garment of "flimsy" fabric, and children as old as twelve were left naked,  how likely is it that any garment, however threadbare, would be cut up to make a quilt?  

  African symbolism

Wilson and her daughter claim that the actual quilt block patterns themselves and their meanings are taken directly from the African "secret societies" in which they were used and where their ancestor, Eliza, learned them.  From Ms. Wilson's article:

My great-grandmother Eliza originally learned the patterns of the Secret Quilt Code in Africa. 

From the family website:

The QUILT CODE consists of African symbols and prints that have a mathimatical base and secret meanings that are a audio visual communication system that is still used today.

Kemp wrote me in May 2002:

The use of the quilts were not tied to the period in America when slaves had to run away but back to the secret societies in Africa where many of the Africans who were enslaved came from.  The patterns and codes are still know and handed down and the techniques I was taught are still in use in those African countries today and are dated through the Africian Universities and historians.

Likewise, in 2004:

What do you know of African textiles and print makers. That is the beginning of the pattern and the secret societies of Africa. Much like fraternities and sororities in American universities. Similar to Masons and Eastern Stars they are social organizations.

In an August 2004 email Kemp stated that 

they surprised us with a message from the Igbo Chief of the area our family is from in West Africa. She has sent us a video greeting.

From the FAQs page of Wilson and Kemp's website in 2006:

In our quilts, the distinct stitches, the dying, colors, construction were unique, and weaving techniques particular to African tribes. Also the colors of the patterns along with the arrangement of the symbols and patterns were and still are used in African languages or dialects.

In summary, the inheritors of the "Quilt Code" appear to believe that their ancestor Eliza, an Igbo from Benin, learned these symbols (those pictured in HIPV are Adinkra) from secret societies while she was a child in Africa.

Yet in 2005 she said that "Every quilt was not an UGRR Coded Quilt even if it had the patterns on it" - suggesting that the "Code" quilt blocks were in common use among whites who were not Underground Railroad participants.

The most striking aspect of "Code" proponents’ description of African symbolism is their apparent presumption not only that the numerous tribes in the slave-trade area of the African continent not only shared one homogeneous "African" culture - but that this generic culture is the same today as it was during the years of the slave trade, unchanged by the Diaspora, colonization, civil war, and two centuries of technology. While "Code" proponents might not quite say all West African cultures look alike, they seem to have no trouble mixing and matching them as the need requires.

This is a common - and quite racist - stereotype. Writes historian Paul E. Lovejoy:

The methodology that is required to uncover the active linkages between Africa and the Americas must begin with a comprehensive knowledge of African history. Then the same historical techniques must be applied in reconstructing the past of Africans who were forcibly moved to the Americas as in the migration of Europeans into their diaspora. It is a sad comment on the state of slave studies in the Americas that this common sense is often ignored. Some of the best scholarship makes assumptions about the African past that abuse standard historical methodology; including the central importance of chronology, the examination of change over time, the critique of all available source material, the insistence that later events and phenomena not be read back into the distant past, and other aspects of the discipline that are or should be taught in virtually every introductory history course.1

While I have only begun research in this area, what I have found so far shows the following:


During and long after the time of slavery, Adinkra symbols were unique to the Gyaman of Ivory Coast and the Akan of western Ghana. These tribes live hundreds of miles west of Benin, where Ms. Kemp's ancestor Eliza is supposed to have come from.  Until the late 20th century, Adinkra symbols were used only on fabric worn at funerals as a symbol of mourning; the word "Adinkra" translates as "saying good-bye to the dead".   Adinkra symbols are not used among the Igbo (the tribe from which Ms. Kemp says her family is descended). The traditional method of printing Adinkra cloth was not developed until around 1818 - about the time Eliza is supposed to have been enslaved and brought to America.  


The Igbo tribe from which Ms. Kemp recently claimed she is descended uses a writing system called Nsibidi. Like Roman letters, and even more than Adinkra symbols, Nsibidi are made almost entirely with lines - not the solid geometric shapes used in patchwork.  While the Igbo share the Nsibidi system with the Ekoi and Efik tribes, only the Ekoi and Efik have secret societies such as that where Eliza is supposed to have learned the "code". Those societies, whose membership is exclusively male, use special Nsibidi known only to them. A few wealthy women are permitted "honorary" membership, but they are never taught the secret symbols.  However, there are no Ekoi, Efik, or even Igbo in Benin; their tribal lands are hundreds of miles away.

With the caveat that my research is only preliminary, what I have learned so far suggests the following:

  • The Adinkra symbols pictured in Hidden in Plain View have nothing to do with the tribe claimed by the "Quilt Code" family. Of hundreds of Adinkra symbols, only one or two vaguely resemble "code" blocks; their meaning, however, is entirely different.

  • Eliza could be from Benin, or she could be Igbo/Ekoi/Efik, but she could not be both. 

  • If Eliza was a member of an Ekoi or Efik tribe which had a secret society, as a female she would not have been taught the secret Nsibidi symbols.

To reasonably assert that the "code" designs originated anywhere in Africa, we must accept that  contrary to all evidence, (a) stars, pinwheels, and checkerboard patterns (among others) do not appear in European or American culture before slaves introduced these simple motifs; and (b) that American quiltmaking itself originated in Africa and was brought to America by slaves.  There is no evidence of the latter, and ample evidence of such patterns being part of the English textile lexicon.  Some of the blocks claimed by the "code" (Pinwheel, Star, Nine-Patch) are among the first ever used in quiltmaking; they appear in English quilts made as early as 1718

Even older, notes British textile historian Pamela Clabburn (The National Trust Book of Furnishing Textiles), are blankets commercially woven in Oxfordshire, England which starting in the early 18th century were embroidered with complex geometric patterns including stars and pinwheels (see image at right from Clabburn's book; images from early American blankets shown in Textiles in America are here):

Between 1711 and 1860 [the Early company] made what became known as the "rose blanket"...[with] motifs embroidered in the four corners....[varying] between 9 and 21 inches in diameter.  Blankets were woven in one long length weighing a hundred pounds....The decoration was put on to show where the length should be cut up into individual blankets....Rose blankets were popular in America.

Early 18th century English blankets were  embroidered with stars and pinwheel designs. 

Click to enlarge.

Hidden in Plain View author Dobard has a more equivocal position. He wonders whether "Ozella's story-code [is] a cultural hybrid, mixing African encoding traditions with American quilt patterning conventions" - in other words, while the block designs were not African but European-American, because African culture used symbols, slaves assigned the blocks new, coded meanings.   This would be notable only if using symbols to convey messages is unique to African cultures (requiring "hybridization"); it also presumes that the resultant "encoding" was somehow uniformly shared throughout the slaveholding South.  

The most that reason can allow is that if a "code" did exist, it could have consisted of Anglo-American block patterns to which African-American slaves may have attached their own meaning. (At the very least, this would certainly be more logical than introducing unusual African motifs which would have drawn unwanted attention.) But that in itself would be a theory in search of proof - hardly an accepted method of research - and would still require evidence a "code" was used.  

Prince Hall Masonry and Harriet Powers

"Code" proponents often draw a direct connection between a generic idea of African use of symbols and secret societies (as if these are unique to that continent) and Prince Hall Masonry. (Prince Hall was the African-American responsible for founding the first Masonic Lodges in the US open to blacks in the late 18th century.  He supported abolition, but whether his involvement included Underground Railroad activities is an open question.)  Some have pointed to Masonic symbols in quilts as indications of a quilt code; this completely ignores both the specific meanings Masons assign to them, and the fact that not all Masons were abolitionists.  Similar claims are made regarding Prince Hall Masons - that the symbols actually conveyed a non-Masonic, perhaps African, meaning.  This effectively asserts that such individuals were liars - not only to others who "misconstrued" the meaning of the symbols, but to themselves.   It also misconstrues the idea of a "secret society."  The Masons and Eastern Star are "secret" only insofar as their membership rites are conducted in private and not discussed with the uninitiated.   

That aside, it is claimed by some that Prince Hall Masons worked as Underground Railroad operatives in the South. However, the first Prince Hall Lodge was not formed in the South until after the Civil War - in Savannah in 1866.

Both Wahlman and Dobard claim that Harriet Powers must have been involved in some sort of "secret society" - probably a Masonic organization. As evidence, they point to an applique on the apron Powers is wearing in the only known photograph of her:

[When Dobard] has shown the slide of Harriet Powers to quilters' groups around the country, women from the audience have stated with certainty that the star on Powers's apron is indeed representative of the Eastern Star, the women's arm of the Masons.

How did Dobard elicit comments about Powers's applique? Did his audience spontaneously volunteer their opinions after he showed them the photo without comment?  Or did he show them the picture, tell them his theory, and then aided by his interpretation, they agreed? Were any of these individuals Eastern Star members familiar with such symbolism?  If so, where did they find this "certain" similarity between the Eastern Star emblem (a five-pointed star with a pentagram center) and Powers's applique, which is disc-shaped and has least a dozen points? 

The "star" on Harriet Powers's apron has many points; the Eastern Star emblem, only five.

We believe it was highly probable that Powers was a member of a secret organization, such as the Eastern Star. The first Grand Lodge, Savannah, Georgia, was established in 1870. For a Grand Lodge to be established, several smaller units, or lodges, would have to have existed throughout the state prior to this.

This statement is misleading on several points.

  • The first Georgia Prince Hall Lodge charter was granted in 1866.  (Charters in remaining southern states dated from 1870 or later.) But since women cannot be Masons, the Lodge charter date is immaterial.  What matters is the date the Lodge's Eastern Star (women's) chapter was formed, which always follows the formation of the Lodge.
  • The first Prince Hall Eastern Star chapter in Georgia was not formed until 1899, in Savannah. Powers lived in Athens, 225 miles away; there has never been a Prince Hall Lodge in Athens. How likely is it that Powers, at the age of 62, joined an organization at least two days' travel from her home?

Tobin and Dobard continue:

In addition to Masonic Lodges, many other beneficial or mutual aid societies and fraternal organizations were proliferating in the South at this time.

This was true in the North and among whites as well.  Dobard and Tobin seem to conclude by limply suggesting "if it's not Masonic (even though people do say it's an Eastern Star logo), it could be something."  Certainly it could be, it could equally be Powers's own invention.  But no evidence has been provided that the applique is, or even might be, anything at all, let alone that it is evidence of membership in a "secret society". No actual research into Powers's life appears to have been conducted; the authors can't even be bothered to find out when the first Eastern Star chapter was formed in Powers's home state.  Yet the authors inexplicably "believe" her membership is "highly probable". 


Like what you see? Please help support this site!


To page 6...