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.
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.
slaves, known as "contrabands," who escaped across Union
lines in Virginia, 1862. (Library
of Congress collection)
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
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,
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.)
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.”
“The slaves, naked and starved, often fall victims to
the inclemencies of the weather.” (Geo. Buchanan, M. D., of
&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.)
&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.)
young fugitive slave
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.)
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.
1819: “Hardly a rag of clothing on them.”—“Generally the
only bedding was a blanket.” (S. E. Maltby.)
“Two old blankets.” (Wm. Leftwich.) Advertisements of
fugitives every year often describe them as “ragged”
or “nearly naked.”
“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.)
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
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
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?
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.
great-grandmother Eliza originally learned the
patterns of the Secret Quilt Code in
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
Kemp wrote me in May 2002:
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.
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
an August 2004 email Kemp stated that
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
the caveat that my research is only preliminary, what I
have learned so far suggests the following:
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.
could be from Benin, or she could be Igbo/Ekoi/Efik, but
she could not be both.
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.
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):
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.
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
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".