MYTH # 55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to help slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.

            Few history myths have origins so recent or so clear as the quilt code myth. We know who started it, who publicized it, and who is profiting from it. We also know the overwhelming body of evidence against it. This myth caught on quickly, thanks in part to teachers and librarians looking for an imaginative way to teach children about slavery, especially during Black History Month.  

            If you haven’t heard this humdinger, it focuses on quilt patterns that supposedly contained a secret message that would guide slaves along the Underground Railroad route. For instance, the Monkey Wrench pattern, when displayed on a line in the slave quarters, supposedly meant “Gather up tools and prepare to flee.” Quilt experts, academic historians, and museum curators all over the country have exposed this myth as a hoax. None of the various claims have been substantiated, and all are contradicted by facts, for instance, several of the quilt patterns that are supposed to have had hidden meanings didn’t even exist before the Civil War. (The Dresden Plate design is late 19th century; the Wedding Ring, pictured above, dates from 1920.) The examples of slave-made quilts with the secret code are all recently made; no independently-documented example has ever been found. Firsthand accounts from people like Harriet Tubman and other slaves (some of which were collected in the 1930s by WPA writers), do not mention anything resembling this quilt code, even when referencing quilts, as Tubman did.

           Kate Clifford Larson, a historian and expert on Harriet Tubman, the former slave who returned to Maryland again and again to help friends and relatives escape, wrote, “She  (Tubman) never used the quilt code. The quilt code is another myth created in the last 20 years. It is not true and everyone should know that. The truth is people who ran away used their great intelligence and took great risks to flee, and they used networks of people who were willing to help. Some people did not get any help; they just ran away and got to freedom on their own.”

            This persistent fairy tale is too profitable to kill off. It has spawned several children’s books, a money-making lecture circuit, sales of quilt code designs to quilt-makers, and sales of quilts to tourists. It is even—horror of horrors—morphing into other cultures. Someone has claimed that Native Americans made coded quilts, another that German Jews made coded quilts to warn others about Nazis. All such stories have been debunked by reputable experts who have, on occasion, been accused of racism when they didn’t agree.

         There is a lesson here—If you want to start a history myth, be sure to include the word “code” or “secret” in it. This is guaranteed to get you lots of attention, as we are all suckers for secret messages, conspiracies, codes, and plots.

          Over the years, Leigh Fellner has researched and written an exhaustive, impressive rebuttal of the quilt code myths that you can read in its very interesting entirety at www.ugrrquilt.hartcottagequilts.com.

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17 Responses to MYTH # 55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to help slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.

  1. Nann says:

    Hooray — thank you for helping to dispel this howler of historical inaccuracy!

  2. Joanna Jones says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for helping to spread the word on this hoax. It is DIS-honoring to our ancestors to make up stories about their struggles, even if it sounds nice.

  3. Daud Alzayer says:

    so who started it, who publicized it, and who is profiting from it? did I miss that or did you not say?

  4. [...] *  And to finally put to rest a contemporary myth – that of the Underground Railroad map quilt. via 2nerdyhistgirls  [...]

  5. NCSU says:

    I wonder if any of you have had to deal with folks who have put a great deal of time, energy, and, perhaps most important, emotions into creating these quilts as a commemoration to freedom seekers.

  6. marymiley says:

    Yes, I’ve seen a few of those. Creating new quilts in honor of those who escaped (or tried) is a lovely idea! I always enjoy seeing how history can influence artistic expression.

  7. ashrog says:

    Story cloth, however, is something that did exist and has precedents in West African cultures. These were textiles that were woven with different patterns principally to denote family lineage, and that tradition was carried through into slavery. Obviously, that’s an entirely different thing than the underground railroad story, which makes no sense if you even think about it for a second. But it’s possible that the “freedom quilt” story could derive from story cloth.

  8. marymiley says:

    Update from the Nashville Business Journal
    Date: Friday, September 30, 2011, 6:53am CDT – Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2011, 7:17am CDT

    A public art announcement that was barely noticed by some in Nashville has made waves across the rest of the country.
    The Metro Arts Commission voted earlier this month to award $300,000 to David Dahlquist, an Iowa-based artist, to install art along the new 28th/31st Avenue connector. As The City Paper reports, Dahlquist aimed to mimic different quilt designs that had originally been used to guide slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
    One problem: The quilt-as-guidepost tale is a myth, as many from across the country were happy to inform the arts commission.
    Jen Cole, director of the arts commission, told The City Paper the installation will maintain a quilt theme but will no longer commemorate the Underground Railroad.

  9. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    Thank you for posting the link above on the “Quilt Code” under Daud Alzayer’s post. I’m hoping to spare my local DAR chapter from a program about this. Our regent has heard of a couple of local ladies who do a program on it (for a small donation of course…) While it “makes an interesting story”, I refuse to participate in perpetuating historical falsehoods especially when there’s so much more REAL interesting African-American and other history out there that we can spend our time on. Keep up the great work!

    • marymiley says:

      Thanks, Melissa. I wish you success in helping stamp out this silly myth. And harmful–each program like the one you describe is one fewer opportunity to share some TRUE stories of the Underground RR and real bravery. Just last week, a college friend of mine was telling me about her ancestor, a white Ohio man, who, she said, was the ONLY person in the North to have actually been imprisoned for participating in the Underground RR. His story is unknown while these fairy tales are disseminated.

      • Melissa Nesbitt says:

        And related to this–any substance to the stories that certain songs were directions to head north like “Follow the Drinking Cup” etc.?

  10. marymiley says:

    I didn’t research that song specifically, but suspect it is as bogus as the rest. Why have a song with secret lyrics when you can just tell people your message? It makes no sense.

    • Melissa Nesbitt says:

      I meant to add “the drinking cup” being the Big Dipper. True enough. (That’s what I’m thinking–why not just out and out tell people?.) But yet…one of my favorite history professors told us about this in one of his lectures (this was back in the 80s/90s), and he didn’t say a word about it being a myth. :-(

      • marymiley says:

        But he probably didn’t know it was a myth. I didn’t know I was repeating several myths when I gave tours in costume in the 70s. People don’t intentionally repeat myths–they think they are fact. I can’t tell you how many people have read my DEATH BY PETTICOAT book and said, “I always thought *** was true!” There’s no shame in believing these myths. (Well, okay, there should be shame in believing some of them–some are ridiculous!)

  11. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    Well, that puts my mind a bit more at ease about my professor then. :) And yes, I have oft repeated myths until I learned better.

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