HART

COTTAGE

QUILTS


Betsy Ross redux:

the

Underground Railroad "Quilt Code"

LEIGH FELLNER

"I believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie. 

I believe it is better to be free than to be a slave. 

And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant."

                                                                                     -- H.L. Mencken 

NOW AVAILABLE IN BOOK FORMAT

Print a page, a chapter, or the whole thing- free! 

Click here to access .pdf file

Need a "Quilt Code" FAQs sheet for your class or guild? Click here.

(Adobe Reader required)

 This is a greatly expanded version of my March 2003 Traditional Quiltworks magazine article.

Comments? Queries? Email me by clicking here.

SUMMARY

The premise of the "Quilt Code" is that various geometric patterns commonly found in American patchwork quilts were used to convey messages in connection with the Underground Railroad. But even among Code proponents, the patternsí meanings, how the quilts were used, and who used them is a matter of debate: as of mid-2005 at least 15 contradictory versions of the Code were circulating. Some proponents claim the Code as part of their family oral history, but none can point to an ancestor who used it to escape to the North or even participated in the Underground Railroad.

Firsthand accounts of fugitive slaves and Underground Railroad participants detail many ways of conveying messages but never mention using quilts, and the details of the Code are incompatible with documented evidence of the Underground Railroad, slave living conditions, quiltmaking, and African culture. For example, the Code includes quilt patterns known to have originated in the 1930s, and while Code proponents say certain patterns are derived from African symbols, the messages the Code assigns to them conflict with the meanings the symbols have in Africa.

Along with many other myths involving quilts and subcultures (such as the Amish), the Code materialized in the 1980s during the post-Bicentennial revival of folk art, the popularization of womenís history studies, and Western notions of African culture comparable to early Hollywood depictions of Native Americans. The earliest mention of a "quilt code" is a brief statement in a 1987 feminist video:  quilts were hung outside Underground Railroad safe houses. (No source is given for the assertion and it is conspicuously absent from the companion book.) In 1993 a white Massachusetts woman elaborated on the Code idea in Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, a childrenís fiction book; its heroine makes a quilt containing a topographical map she uses to escape from slavery.

Not long after Sweet Clara was published, Ozella Williams, a retired California school administrator, used her own version of a "quilt code" to sell quilts in a Charleston, South Carolina tourist mall. One of her customers was Jacqueline Tobin, a white instructor in "womenís words," who unsuccessfully pressed Williams for details. When Williams refused to return Tobinís phone calls, Tobin visited Williams unannounced and "coaxed" the elderly woman to reveal the Code to her.  The resulting book, Hidden In Plain View, was published after Williams's death, and was promoted by Oprah Winfrey and quilt shop owners, who produced Code quilt kits for the multibillion-dollar quilters market, and by antique dealers who used the Code as a marketing tool. Williamsís family members developed a cottage industry lecturing on the Code and selling related merchandise. Although no historian has ever supported the Code, by 2001 elementary and secondary schools were teaching it as historical fact. But after scholars pointed out numerous discrepancies between the Code and documented Underground Railroad history, earlier supporters of the Code began distancing themselves from its claims. Tobin herself has since complained that "people have tried to push the book in directions that it was not meant for," and when Dobard was asked in 2009 where his book should appear on library shelves, he said "somewhere between fact and fiction."

For easier navigation and faster loading, I've divided this article into sections.  

To navigate, you can use the "contents" links below,  or simply click the link at the bottom of this page to continue reading.

CONTENTS

Introduction

The "Quilt Code" timeline

Sources

Underground Railroad history

How quilts were supposedly used 

Blocks said to be in the "quilt code"  

More "code" quilt blocks

Fabrics available to slaves

African symbolism and the "code"  

Sources said to confirm the "code's" existence

The "Ross Code"

"Without it, HIPV could not have been written" 

Misquotes, conflations, and semantic games

The "quilt code" family tree   

Tracking down purported "code" participants

The "quilt code" industry

History repeats itself

"Fakelore" 

Selling slavery:  "Quilt Code" as marketing gimmick

NEW! "Quilt Code" Hall of Shame

Real history - firsthand accounts of fugitive slaves, the UGRR, and abolitionists online

19th century African American quilts in museums

African American history teaching guide  

Guide for helping students conduct history research

 

 

Looking for something specific?

Search only this site

 

Introduction

In 1999, Random House publishing subsidiary Doubleday, known for its popular fiction and "lite" nonfiction, announced the release of a remarkable new book by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard. Half a dozen years earlier, Tobin wrote, she had been approached by an elderly black woman in Charleston, South Carolina with a surprising story: during the half century before the Civil War, quilts had been used by African-Americans as a means of conveying messages concerning escape on the Underground Railroad. Not surprisingly, the "Underground Railroad Quilt Code," as it came to be known, quickly captured the popular imagination: for generations, a secret code originating in Africa had been "hidden in plain view" in everyday quilts! Quilt stores now sell "Code" books, tour guides and antique dealers use the "Code" to sell antiques, and educators struggling to make sense of Black History Month use "Code" storybooks to teach variations of the story to children in Social Studies classes.

Meanwhile, professional historians and an increasingly vocal group of laymen and women - students of quilt history and the history of African-Americans - have decried the "Quilt Code" as without factual basis, accusing its proponents of sloppy scholarship at best and sheer hucksterism at worst. They wonder why none of the people asserting they learned the "Code" from family oral history claims a single ancestor who actually escaped North. And they complain that just as the history of African-Americans had gained acceptance as worthy of serious study, documented stories of black accomplishments and heroism were being ignored in favor of a convenient pop-culture tale whose dubiousness insults the very culture it ostensibly celebrates.

Which view is correct? Does the "Underground Railroad Quilt Code" have any basis in fact?

In the years since the publication of Hidden in Plain View this writer has studied the "Quilt Code" in depth. Research included conversations with Serena Wilson, niece of Ozella Williams, and lengthy correspondence with Teresa Kemp, Wilsonís daughter, who also promotes the "Quilt Code". I was disappointed that although her emails to me totaled more than 6,000 words, and she not only repeatedly stated that she wanted to answer in detail any questions I had but offered to send me documentary evidence she said her family had kept for generations, when I sent her specific questions regarding the individual quilt blocks described below, Kempís emails to me abruptly stopped.

In late July 2004 Kemp again made contact with me, blaming a computer virus for her two-year silence. Over a period of about 10 days she sent me another dozen emails totaling another 3,000 words, none of which answered any of my questions about the "Quilt Code". She did, however, make a number of new claims, including that the Daughters of the Confederacy are somehow behind objections to the "Quilt Code" myth, and that historians reject the "Quilt Code" because they "did not bother to check or get other information".

As she did in 2002, Kemp repeatedly promised to answer specific questions I sent her about the "Quilt Code". She even agreed to send me copies of the evidence she claims to have unearthed. She never sent me anything, nor did she ever reply to follow-up emails asking for their whereabouts. But while Kemp may have abandoned her correspondence with me, she continues to send out notices of lectures and other appearances, and applied for a Federal government grant to teach the "Code". In 2005 she announced she had opened a "museum" in the Underground Atlanta district ($8 admission), which also sold quilts.  In 2006 she complained to a sympathetic blogger that she could not seem to attract much attention from African-Americans;  as elsewhere, most of those interested in the "quilt code" story were white.  Despite its location in a high-traffic shopping area, by mid-2007 the "museum" had closed for lack of business, and its plantationquilts.com website had been shut down. 

 

The "Quilt Code" timeline

The first mention I have found of a "Quilt Code" - the idea that quilts were somehow used as signals by or for escaped slaves in connection with the Underground Railroad - is a single line in the voiceover narrative for Hearts and Hands, a 1987 video about women and quilts by feminists Pat Ferrera and Elaine Hedges:

They say quilts were hung on the clotheslines to signal a house was safe for runaway slaves.

Strangely, the companion book, coauthored by Julie Silber, contains no such statement. I wrote the film production company for information on the source of this claim, but did not receive a response.  In late 2005 I located the filmmaker's original research file, and obtained copies of the folders relating to abolition, the Civil War, and African-Americans.  I found nothing on quilts as signals; however, among the correspondence was a letter expressing concern about the script's historical accuracy.

Other parts of Hearts and Hands have come into question. Ellie Sienkewicz, regarded as the leading expert on the history of Baltimore Album quilts, noted in 1989 that the book cites two credible historians for its confident, detailed history of Mary Ann Evans's significant contribution to the design of such quilts. Sothebys relied on the book's assertions to attribute three quilts to Evans; each sold for a small fortune.  But Sienkewicz points out that the book mischaracterizes its sources:  where Hearts and Hands is unequivocal, they are only tentative, and the conclusions one does make are unsupported by simple math. Concludes Sienkewicz, the authors of Hearts and Hands are among those who have transmuted "theory into fact."  (For more on this book, click here.)

In 1989, folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry curated an exhibit of African-American quilts, Stitched from the Soul:  Slave Quilts of the Ante-Bellum South. (Despite its title, almost all of the quilts in the exhibit date from well after the Civil War; several are from after 1940.)  Fryís account elaborates on the claim in Hearts and Hands:

Quilts were used to send messages. On the Underground Railroad, those with the color black were hung on the line to indicate a place of refuge (safe house)...Triangles in quilt design signified prayer messages or prayer badge, a way of offering prayer. Colors were very important to slave quilt makers. The color black indicated that someone might die. A blue color was believed to protect the maker. 

Fry's book is peppered with footnotes, but she provides no source for this remarkable statement which, as far as I have been able to find, is the first time such a claim ever appeared in print.  (For more on Fry, click here.)

A seminar was held in connection with Fry's exhibit.  Jonathan Holstein recalls quilt historian Cuesta Benberry's reaction to the seminar's presentations:   the "main road", said Benberry, of African-American quiltmakers was being ignored in favor of what Holstein calls "an attempt to define African-American quilts using small samplings of specific times, areas, or groups" resulting in a distorted, stereotyped understanding that was "ill-advised at best and unconsciously racist at worst" and which "has led to some major scholarship disasters".  

Though there has always been an unfortunate mixture of fact, myth and speculation in some quilt writing and scholarship, it has been particularly evident in discussions of African-American quilts. There, the mixture has functioned as a dangerous substitute for missing history. This too has led to some recent fiascos of scholarship.

 -  Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition (1991)  

Benberry attempted to correct what she called "erroneous assumptions" with another, scholarly exhibit, Always There:  The African-American Presence in American Quilts, which celebrated the wide variety of styles shown in the quilts of black women.  In her introduction to the companion book,  Benberry points out that many stories about quilts are the product of "overactive imaginations," and notes:

A story, as yet undocumented, tells of quilts in the "Jacob's Ladder" pattern (renamed "Underground Railroad") hung outside houses as a signal to passengers on the Underground Railroad that the homes were safe havens for the fearful travelers.

In her companion book, Benberry compares the 1980s explosion of interest in African-American quilts to the 1970s craze for Amish quilts. She notes the influence of Afrocentrism and of Women's Studies programs in the last decades of the 20th century, and observes with dismay the rapid development of pop-culture assumptions about African-American quilts and their makers: 

African-American quilts became one of America's newest forms of exotica.  Continued scrutiny of [a small group of African-American quilts whose style was outside the traditional American quilt aesthetic] resulted in the promulgation of a number of theories which were immediately accepted as fact....Long established canons of quilt history research...were no longer deemed essential.  

Such an extremely myopic view of African-American quilts made many scholars of black history and quilt history researchers uneasy....[Q]uilt historians realized findings gathered in these early studies of black-made quilts had been extrapolated far beyond what the evidence would legitimately support.

Unfortunately, such premature assumptions have been made and have gained wide credence....[m]any persons have accepted the erroneous assumptions of these skewed studies and are certain they can identify African-American quilts on sight.  They are often wrong but never in doubt.

In other words, at the same time stereotypes about black people were ostensibly being abandoned, stereotypes about their quilts (and thus their makers' individuality) were becoming entrenched.   

Such warnings went unheeded.  The next year, Maude Wahlman published Signs and Symbols:  African Images in African-American Quilts.  The book had originated as a thesis and was also published in 1987 as a journal article.   Of the five thousand slides of African-American quilts and their makers Wahlman claims to own, as evidence she selects only 103 quilts made by two dozen quilters.  Ninety percent date from the 1980s birth of the "art quilt" (which have been described as "paintings" made of fabric and found objects such as beads, feathers and wire) and the post-Civil Rights Movement revival of interest in African culture.  

Using the very criteria and methodology Benberry had only recently described as "myopic," Wahlman claims to find in these quilts specific African "signs and symbols" which black Americans somehow passed down through ten generations.  This comes as a surprise to the few nonprofessional quilters in her book.  Blissfully unaware of the hidden messages in their quilts, until Wahlman enlightens them they think they are just being creative. (Some, like Charlie Logan, sound insulted by Wahlman's assertions: "I taught myself.  It doesn't mean anything.") Wahlman pointedly ignores the meanings these artists give their creations, and decides on other, subconscious motivations, most of which relate somehow to voodoo. Wahlman sets the stage for the notion that African-American quilts are full of hidden meaning, and also suggests quilts may have been used as escape signals. She gives no details. (For more on Wahlman, click here.)

Signs & Symbols was followed by a rash of childrenís storybooks asserting various connections between quilts and the Underground Railroad.

The first, published in 1992, was written by one of the "fiber artists" in Wahlmanís book.  In Faith Ringgold's Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad Quilt in the Sky, two children encounter the spirit of Harriet Tubman.  She soars with them through the night sky, explaining that every 100 years a railroad train made of stars traces the path she took as she led runaway slaves to freedom."  Ringgold's book tells the fugitive to look for a house with a quilt "flung on the roof. If you don't see the quilt, hide in the woods until it appears." In other words, a particular house is to be located by a sign that isnít there.

By far the most well-known of the "Quilt Code" children's books is Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, published in 1993. Four years earlier, author Deborah Hopkinson heard a short radio story about an "art quilt" exhibit including the work of Elizabeth Scott, celebrated for her contributions as a pioneer in that field. Among the mixed-media quilts in the exhibit was one by Scott entitled "Plantation Quilt," randomly covered with appliquť stars. The artist herself never mentions a "code", or any use of quilts in connection with escape, but Hopkinsonís title character, a young slave, makes a quilt that is literally a map of the area surrounding the plantation where she lives, which she then uses to escape. 

Hopkinson says she also used Stitched from the Soul as her source, but has repeatedly stated the book is fiction. But it feels real - so real, in fact, one scholarly journal celebrates the author as an "African-American writer who employ[s] the quilt as a symbol of resistance to control and dominance" in whose book "cultural identity is created by the symbolic tradition of the quilt and its representation of Afrocentric motherhood". Hopkinson describes herself as "an Irish girl from Lowell [Massachusetts}. For more on Sweet Clara and its inspiration, click here.

Benberry and others had cautioned that

a procedure in which the quilts from a small group of black quiltmakers from a limited time frame are selected, examined for common characteristics, conclusions reached, interpretations devised, and extrapolations from these made to all African-American quilts of all times, is at odds with the accepted method of historical inquiry. 

She warned that without careful, methodical investigation, "a too-hasty, anachronistic interpretation" would be reached. Yet less than a decade after their first mention in 1987's Hearts and Hands, an entire pop-culture mythology had been created around African-American quilts. 

Sandra K. German was a founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network. In the 1993 issue of the American Quilt Study Group journal Uncoverings, German quotes cofounder Carolyn Mazloomi regarding the impact of one such exhibit, organized by collector Eli Leon:

"I was on fire [says Mazloomi] to hear about the history - the rich history - of African American quiltmaking...Instead, when we went to see the show at the museum, one of the first things I noticed was that the quilts in Eli Leon's collection were very much unlike my own, or those of the other women of AAQLA [African American Quilters of Los Angeles]....Then we viewed the faces of a group of white [quilters]...It was as if they were asking whether all African American quilters produced only the seemingly haphazard, irregular and impromptu-style quilts portrayed in the show."  The answer was clear...The encounter left her with....a lasting suspicion as to the validity of that show, its claims, and its ramifications for the future of African American quiltmaking.  The Network founders wholly rejected the assertions of Leon and his contingent.

German quotes cofounder Melodye Boyd's recollection of a conversation with the Baltimore Arts Council:

She was interested in displaying quilts made by Afro-American quilters, but only those made in the "traditional" style or where those quilts that are made in the Euro-American style clearly show the influence of the "traditional" style.

And German herself recalls the group's 1993 efforts

 ...to have our work juried into an important show of African American folk art.  Slide submissions were reviewed and, not surprisingly, rejected.  As with many such experiences, some of the jurors had adopted the mistaken and misguided criteria advanced by [Eli] Leon and others - to the exclusion of all else. Sadly, the sting of this rejection was made even more excruciating when we later learned that the esteemed but erroneous jurors were themselves African American.  Of the dozens of people of color who submitted work, only one aspirant's work was selected because it was stereotypically "African American."

 

The genesis of Hidden in Plain View

HIPV author Jacqueline TobinIn 1993 Jacqueline Tobin, a former therapist who taught writing, women's history  and "women's words" at a Denver college, was wandering a Charleston, South Carolina tourist mall in search of information about baskets.  Tobin had recently coauthored The Tao of Women with sociology professor and New Age author Pamela Metz, whose The Tao of... books include Calm, Loss and Grief, Learning, Gardening, and Travel. Although The Tao of Women claims that "in 1950, a secret woman's writing was discovered near Hunan, China", anthropologists and linguists point out that nu shu was actually a simplified adaptation of standard Chinese writing, and that it was not "secret"; men had simply ignored it as unimportant.

The proprietor of one Charleston Market stall was Ozella McDaniel Williams, a 70-ish Howard University graduate and former school administrator now in the business of selling quilts.  Ozella (as Tobin later refers to her) was dressed in "brightly colored, geometrically patterned African garb," and called Tobin over to tell her a fascinating story:  her mother had taught her that specific block patterns in quilts had been used by African-American slaves in connection with escape North.  Ozella said that although she had been telling her story for years, none in the African-American community either believed or corroborated it.  Tobin bought one of Ozella's quilts, took a brochure with her phone number, and went back home to finish her basket story. 

Months later, Tobin decided to phone Ozella for more information about the "Code". But although she had approached Tobin with the story in the first place and provided her phone number, Ozella suddenly refused to talk. 

This, says Tobin, "added an element of intrigue" to the story". She was "hooked". 

Tobin contacted art history professor Raymond Dobard, hoping Dobard's race (and possibly his Howard connection) would induce Ozella to be more forthcoming with him than she had been with Tobin. Dobard declined, but suggested Tobin pursue the issue, since "[w]eíve all been waiting and hoping to find a Code". 

Tobin spent the next three years looking for information about the Quilt Code. She says she "traveled down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans" (odd, since that was the western border of the slave states, and as far east from Ozella's Charleston as possible) but nobody she consulted could give her any information about it.  She could find no slave-made quilts containing one. Eventually she went back to Charleston. First, she says, she "immersed herself in the flavor of the Old South" by taking a carriage ride. Then she showed up at Ozella's uninvited, and somehow prevailed upon her to reveal the Code.  Tobin was "no longer the journalist in search of a story"; she was "taking part in a time-honored women's ritual of passing on wisdom from one generation to another."  Recalled Dobard:

And then a Sunday morning in May I received a call, and Jackie was speaking in something of a whispered voice, as if she were almost afraid to ask the question. And she said "Raymond, hereís what she said to me" - the code. And she followed by saying "Have you heard of anything like this before? Does it seem credible to you? Is this the real thing? And my response was "Jackie, itís a miracle. Yes, I think youíve found what weíve all been hoping to find, and thatís a real code."

Dobard promptly agreed to coauthor. Within a day of finding an agent, three publishers were bidding for the book. But while Dobardís own Howard University Press would seem the most logical choice for an ostensibly scholarly work on African-American history, Tobin and Dobard signed with Doubleday, Random Houseís middlebrow subsidiary.

Ozella died in 1998, just a few weeks after Tobinís last meeting with her.  Just eight months later (and as Ozella had predicted before her death), Dobard was promoting Hidden in Plain View on the Oprah Winfrey show.  Although the book is primarily  Tobin's creation, when the Oprah Winfrey show and other producers called to arrange for public appearances, it was Dobard they wanted, not Tobin - - who was even passed over by Denver quilt guilds. According to Wahlman, "I think that's partly because he's African-American, partly because he has a Ph.D.  They think he's the scholar, but she's the scholar."  Tobin was miffed, but said that Dobard "acted as though we've got to do this to sell the book."   

Tobin claimed Ozella's family "all corroborated the story, albeit in slightly different versions, gave me the same history of the story. Relatives from Ohio, Georgia and California have confirmed the story their mother and grandmother told Ozella."  But Ozella's niece, Teresa Kemp (who lives in Georgia), wrote me that the family only found out about the book by accident, after it was published.  According to Kemp, Tobin never contacted either her or her mother, who lives in Ohio.

After Ozella's death the tourist market stall was rented by fiber artist Anne Robinson, who recalls that when she first arrived a number of the craft vendors 

"...said 'Oh another quilter again. We hadn't had one since Miss Ozella.' No one mentioned the stories but when the book came out I started selling it (quilt related you see) and they were shocked that (a) there was a book at all and (b) that anyone believed her. Apparently she was very free with the info that she was just telling tales to sell quilts....According to them, she used to make up the stories for the tourists and just laugh after they left."

One of the book's three introductions is written by Wahlman, without whose book Signs and Symbols Tobin claims Hidden in Plain View "could not have been written".  Amazingly, Benberry wrote another, which was viewed by some as a credibility coup for the authors.  In it Benberry claimed Tobin and Dobard "established a significant linkage between the Underground Railroad, escaping slaves and the American patchwork quilt."  And shortly after the book's publication in 1999, Benberry predicted Ozella's "oral history" would "generate a great deal of controversy," which she dismissed as coming from "the custom of scholars to look askance at oral tradition, at anything that can't be proved by the written word."  In 2002, Benberry thought that giving Tobin credit for "her good intentions but not for [her] careful research" was "most distressing and condescending".  But a year later, she appears to have stepped away from the book.  The Cincinnati Post reported in 2003:

[T]hree years and much controversy later, Benberry won't vouch for the book's accuracy. "I don't know," she said, when asked whether she believed the story. "I'm still waiting for the weight of the evidence to tip the scale one way or another."

Scholarship under fire

Less than 20% of Hidden in Plain View actually discusses Ozella's "quilt code". Forewords, acknowledgements,  authors' notes, an epilogue, a glossary, and a timeline of slavery take up 52 of the book's 208 pages.  Its format alone makes a careful reading difficult: strangely for a nonfiction volume, the book has neither index nor footnotes, and lumps all its sources together in a 16-page bibliography.   (Tobin explains that it "was written for the average, non quilter, not the quilt historian.") The bibliography's length suggests extensive research; but of 159 works listed, the book actually cites only 33 - of which three are juvenile literature.  In fact, Hidden in Plain View's bibliography includes nine works written for children; a novel about the Amistad rebellion; contemporary poetry; a Whole Earth Magazine article on African-American music by a columnist who also writes on family therapy, the movie Titanic, and why children like Xena Warrior Princess; and a book claiming that the earth was populated by extraterrestrials. 

It is difficult to draw a connection between the sources Hidden in Plain View does cite and the conclusions at which it arrives. More than once, the sources say nothing remotely like what Tobin and Dobard suggest; in other cases, the authors use a poorly-researched secondary source (which does support their claim) rather than referring to the original document (which does not).  Tobin admits that the book's photographs are "certainly of recently made quilts," but explains "there was not time to seek out antique quilts, nor were we trying to be accurate as to the date of the quilt shown."  When asked why the book contained a photograph of a 20th century quilt pattern, Tobin blamed the book's "graphics editor" - even though Dobard himself had not only provided the photo, but made the quilt block himself.  

The book's poor scholarship was derided by historians from every discipline, who noted its claims were contradicted by everything known about quilts and the Underground Railroad.  The only one to say anything remotely positive takes great pains to avoid saying the book's claims have any factual basis.  Damning Hidden in Plain View with faint praise, Joseph Reidy (a colleague of Dobard) merely says it "opens up new ways of thinking" about the Underground Railroad and that he "appreciates" Dobard's attempt to "mine [material culture] for...hidden meanings". Even Dobard equivocates, stating that the book's claims are based on "informed conjecture."  And he openly admits to turning accepted research methodology on its head:

We have thus found ourselves to be obliged to reverse conventional procedures, having to present a theory before finding a wealth of tangible evidence. 

The "Quilt Code" gets its legs

But when Hidden in Plain View was featured on Oprah Winfrey (to which only Dobard was invited, much to Tobin's irritation) and Ozella's relatives appeared on the TV program Simply Quilts, it quickly became a part of the pop culture already surrounding African-American quilts.  Eleanor Burns, a white publisher of quilt pattern books, issued one for an "Underground Railroad Sampler". Quilt shop owners marketed the book, quilt block kits, and classes based on the "Quilt Code". White, middle-income suburban quilters - some 95% of the multibillion-dollar quilting market - frequently say the "Code" story makes them feel good.   It is common to hear them confidently assert - at a safe distance of 150 years - that had they lived during slavery, they would have been conductors on the Underground Railroad themselves.

By February 2000, the Code had morphed from Dobard's "informed conjecture" into unquestioned historic fact.  The February 2000 issue of American Visions, a peer-reviewed arts journal, published an excerpt of Hidden in Plain View, prefacing it with an introduction claiming that Ozella had actually shown Tobin 

a quilt dating from slavery that, she explained, bore markings that had guided runaway slaves along the routes to freedom.

This quilt does not appear in Hidden in Plain View; has never been mentioned by either Tobin, Dobard, Wilson, or Kemp; and could not be found in Kemp's Atlanta "museum".  It appears to be the figment of the journal editors' imagination. 

School systems desperate for an easy way to teach the complicated subject of slavery added Sweet Clara and Ozella's "Quilt Code" to their Social Studies curricula. Meanwhile African-Americans' documented historic accomplishments - not to mention actual stories of escape - were studiously ignored.

Some in the rather ladylike quilt world suggested that questioning the historical accuracy of the "Quilt Code" was too upsetting, and perhaps not quite nice. Others argued that serious historians knew the truth, and it didnít matter what the average American thought about how enslaved blacks escaped to freedom. In a strange twist of logic, many privately expressed the fear that by challenging a new stereotype of African-Americans, theyíd be called racist. Others wondered condescendingly whether African-Americans "just need something to cling to" (an actual email this writer received).  No one, however, could explain what benefit to blacks exists in promoting urban legend as historic fact. 

In 2001, children's book writer Marcia Vaughan's The Secret to Freedom was published. The book, which one review says is written in a "modified colloquial language that hints at the unschooled plantation speech," tells the story of 10-year-old slave girl who is given a sack of quilts by her brother, a conductor on the Underground Railroad.  At his instruction she displays the quilts to help slaves escape.  The book won a Teachers' Choice award; numerous guides are available so that teachers can use the book in classes about the Underground Railroad.

In May 2002, Traditional Quiltworks magazine published an article by Ozellaís niece, Serena Wilson, who after an apparent falling-out with Tobin had gone on the nationwide lecture circuit herself.  Her article (pages 1-2, 3-4, 5)provided what she called "new information" on the "Quilt Code", but in the process she often contradicted her aunt Ozella. She also provided lecture booking information and the location of her gift shop. For like Ozella, Wilson had a business making and selling quilts.

In 2003, Kentucky native Clarice Boswell published Lizzie's Story, which the author claims is based on the life of her grandmother (who was born five years after the Civil War ended) and who, says Boswell, taught her the "Quilt Code".  She lectures nationwide promoting her book and her own, elaborate and very different version of the "Code", but does not permit her lectures to be recorded because, she says, her story changes a little every time.

Also in 2003, Hopkinson published yet another "Quilt Code" children's storybook, Under the Quilt of Night.  It contains an entirely different "code" from the one in her earlier Sweet Clara.  In 1997, she had queried members of the Quilt History email list on the factual accuracy of the claim that quilts were used as Underground Railroad signals.  List members discouraged her from promoting what they said was a myth; Hopkinson responded that her new book "will probably include a note indicating that this hasn't been proven or documented fully."  

In 2004, Bettye Stroud joined the throng with her children's book The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom.  The book is described as "fiction but includes a lot of facts". It contains yet another version of the "Quilt Code".

That year Macia Fuller also joined the "Quilt Code" lecture circuit. A review of a book by another author quotes Fuller, describing her as an "arts curator and African history scholar from Sacramento," but no other information on her has been located. Fuller claimed in a 2005 lecture that the earliest evidence "of African-Americans on the U.S. continent" dates from when "Africa and South America were connected" some 135 million years ago. (Scientists believe Homo sapiens first appeared 120,000 years ago.)

That fall, a Kingston, Ontario family constructed a " corn maze " (admission $6 adults), through which visitors are guided by a "quilt code".

In June 2005, the New York Times reported that residents of the central Long Island town of Stony Brook had started claiming the local Setalcott Indians had used their own "Quilt Code" to help fugitive slaves escape:

The Morning Star pattern indicated help would come from a Native American, she said, and the color of an Hourglass indicated the time of day: red meant the morning, yellow or green the afternoon, blue or black the evening. Mr. Green said his grandmother told him a zigzag pattern like the Drunkard's Path referred to winding routes, known only to Setalcotts and accessible only by canoe, through the swamps and wetlands along the North Shore.  

In August 2005 the local Trotwood, Ohio paper announced that the school board had commissioned a massive "Quilt Code" mural for the lobby of the regionís new high school, based on a book written by a former school board member. The school's cafeteria is decorated with enormous "Quilt Code" blocks.

In late October 2005 a University of Nevada/Las Vegas professor asked H-Slavery listmembers for help on behalf of masterís degree candidate Theodore Ransaw, who was writing his masterís thesis on the "Quilt Code" but had been unable to find any evidence it existed. Fifteen scholars told him there was no such evidence, and that the "Code" was myth. Ransaw then contacted me, admitting Wilson and Kempís claims "seemed speculative." Less than six weeks later, he submitted his thesis, which unquestioningly accepts the "Quilt Codeís" existence. Ransaw also accepts Kempís claim that she has an "authenticated first hand account" of the "Quilt Code," although he admits he has never seen it.    The 80-page document, which refers to Hidden in Plain View (one of his "most heavily used sources") as "Hidden in Plain Sight," is riddled with significant factual errors and fabricated statements relating directly to his claims. For more on the Ransaw thesis, click here.

Not to be outdone by Ransaw or the Setalcotts, in February 2006  Wilson and Kemp's  website  began claiming that "Jewish people used Quilts during the World War to let others know when Nazi presence made it dangerous to come and go."  Severin Hochberg, senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museumís Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, says there is no evidence quilts were ever used in this manner.

In 2006 the Times featured the "Code" again, announcing that a statue of Frederick Douglass being erected at the corner of Central Park and 8th Avenues in New York would be embellished by sculptor Algernon Miller with images of "Code" quilt blocks. 

By 2009, even Dobard had backpedaled on his earlier claims, admitting at one lecture that "[t]he book is not infallible and there are mistakes in there." The author of Hidden in Plain View now found his own book something of a puzzle: 

Asked where this book should appear on the library shelf, non-fiction or fiction, Dobard responded, "I think it should be in between, but more in the non-fiction, because there are facts in here. There are portions in this book that are definitely non-fiction, but we don't know everything about Ozella ó she's an enigmatic figure and there are some enigmatic elements in the book. "

_____________________________

In his introduction, Hidden in Plain View co-author Dobard was careful to characterize Ozella's story as an interesting theory needing further study.  But until his 2009 interview, he, Tobin, and every other "Code" proponent has presented it as historical fact.  

Is it? 

At least fifteen different, contradictory "quilt code" claims are now in circulation.  And while several proponents assert the "Code" was passed to them through family oral history, none claims a single ancestor who actually escaped North; all remained in the South. Quite remarkably, not a single woman who ostensibly passed down the "Code" through her  descendants seems to have used it herself.

Those genuinely interested in quilt history and the history of the Underground Railroad must wonder which account - if any - is accurate. Can any of these claims be supported by independent sources? Do they stand the test of the National Parks Service's own guidelines for substantiating Underground Railroad claims?

Roland Freeman, founder of The Group for Cultural Documentation and author of many books on African-American history including A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories, has researched African-American quilt history for decades.  In a 2002 interview, Freeman observed "There is a whole group of people who wallow in the concept of how we got over, but I couldn't find any evidence to support [a quilt "code"]." Like Mr. Wright, Mr. Freeman wonders how such a "mass conspiracy" could have existed without leaving behind some evidence.  He finds no evidence of a "code" - something that the authors of Hidden in Plain View fail to note when they mention his book.  

Historian and acclaimed Harriet Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson observed on afrigeneas.com, a site devoted to African-American genealogy research, that 

by dressing the story up all cute and pretty with quilt patterns and kindly folks who used them to guide runaways to freedom - then we don't have to talk about the realities of slavery, and of running away, etc. It seems to me to be part and parcel of the continued erasure of African American history - by creating mythical stories the truth is eventually lost. No one needs myths as a substitute for history, nor as a way to explain the complications of history. There is plenty of the real stuff out there, waiting to be exposed and taught to everyone 

Shelly Pearsall, who writes historical fiction for children, concurs:

[The "Quilt Code"] enables schools to keep from tackling the realities of the runaway slave experience.  I think it also diminishes the incredible courage, guts, and individual determination the journey required.   There were no quilts -- there was hunger, there was fear, there was illness, there was bad weather, there was frequent misinformation and losing your way -- it was not a lovely journey of hopping from one quilt pattern to the next. 

Faith Davis Ruffins is a historian at the Smithsonian Institution and curator of an exhibit at Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.  In the same Cincinnati Post interview quoting Benberry and Reidy, Ruffins says Hidden in Plain View is "really a disservice" to Underground Railroad history.  She notes that neither Tobin nor Dobard seem to have researched Ozella Williams's own background. According to Ruffins, Hidden in Plain View is " made up of speculation and supposition...There is a huge issue of implausibility. There are no sources...They do not provide a single shred of evidence that this is true."   

George Nagle, editor of Afrolumens.org, asserts that "This persistent fairy tale has been leading researchers down false trails for too long.  It's time to debunk the myth and get on with serious research."

Author Dobard brushes aside this skepticism as "irritating."

Sources

Thanks to the firsthand accounts of slave life recorded during the WPA Writers Project in the 1930s, and more than 200 published autobiographies and diaries of former slaves and Underground Railroad participants (half published before the Civil War, the rest afterward), we have many detailed descriptions of escape and of quiltmaking - even a list of the quilt blocks former slaves said were their favorites. Harriet Tubman herself refers to quiltmaking; piecing quilt blocks was this Underground Railroad conductor's favorite way to pass the time while hiding in the woods, waiting for sundown when she could guide her "passengers" to freedom. Larson's biography notes that Tubman gave a quilt (as payment or in gratitude, we do not know) to the woman who hid her when she first escaped from slavery.   But none of the firsthand accounts of slaves who actually escaped to freedom (unlike those said to have used the "Code") mention any sort of "code" using quilts. Ozella, her niece Serena Wilson - both in the business of selling quilts to tourists - and children's book writer Clarisse Boswell are the only source of this information.  And their accounts of the "Code" directly contradict each other.

Research on this subject included conversations with Wilson and lengthy correspondence with Teresa Kemp, her daughter, who also lectures on the "Quilt Code". I was disappointed that although her ten emails to me in May 2002 totaled more than 3,000 words, and she repeatedly stated that she wanted to answer in detail any questions I had, when I sent her specific regarding the individual quilt blocks said to be included in the "Code," Kempís emails to me abruptly stopped.  

In late July 2004 Kemp again made contact with me, blaming a computer virus for her two-year silence.  Over a period of about 10 days she sent me another dozen emails totaling another 3,000 words, none of which answered any of my questions about the "quilt code".  She did, however, make a number of new claims, including that the Daughters of the Confederacy are somehow behind objections to the "quilt code" myth, and that historians reject the "quilt code" because they "did not bother to check or get other information".  

As she did in 2002, Kemp repeatedly promised to answer specific questions I sent her about the "quilt code". She even agreed to send me copies of the evidence she claims to have unearthed.  She never sent me anything, nor did she ever reply to follow-up emails asking for their whereabouts. But while Kemp may have abandoned her correspondence with me, she continues to send out notices of lectures and other appearances and applied for a Federal government grant to teach the "Code". In 2005 she announced she had opened a "museum" and gift shop in Atlanta, for which she charges admission.  It closed a few years later.


Like what you see? Please help support this site!

 

© 2004-2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED