Revisited Myth #55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to guide escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad.

519Qj41qP2L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Myth #55 was in the news this week, with the announcement that Harriet Tubman was going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20. The Washington Post ran an article by Kate Clifford Larson, the author of an acclaimed biography of Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. In the article, Larson debunks 5 myths about  Tubman in much the same way we did when dealing with our Myth #55. (Read the entire Washington Post article here.) Here is what Larson says about the quilt code: 

Myth #3: She [Tubman] followed the quilt code to the North.

This myth is a staple of school curricula. Students are taught that slaves and free people stitched secret, coded directions into quilts and then hung them outside at night to help guide freedom seekers to the next safe house. While it is a pretty story, it has no basis in fact, and it tells us nothing about the real heroes and actual workings of the Underground Railroad.

Most of the quilt designs claimed by proponents of the quilt code were not even created until after the Civil War and slavery ended. Enslaved people would not have had access to the multiple varieties and colors of fabrics needed to construct such quilts, nor would they have placed precious bedding outside when it would have been badly needed inside their homes. We also know that Underground Railroad routes changed frequently because of the danger involved, so something as permanent as a quilt pattern would have been of limited use, anyway.

Rather than quilts, Tubman depended on her great intellect, courage and religious faith to escape slavery and then go back to rescue others. She followed rivers that snaked northward, and used the stars and other natural phenomena to guide her. She relied on sympathetic people, black and white, who hid her, told her which way to go and connected her with other people she could trust. She wore disguises. She paid bribes.

When leading her charges, she would alter the tempo of certain songs, “Go Down Moses” and “Bound for the Promised Land,” or mimic the hoot of an owl, to signal whether it was safe or too dangerous to reveal their hiding places. She also used coded letters. In December 1854, for instance, she had a letter sent to Jacob Jackson, a literate, free black farmer and veterinarian, instructing him to tell her brothers that they needed to be ready to “step aboard” the “Ol’ Ship of Zion.” In other words, she was coming to rescue them.

One Response to Revisited Myth #55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to guide escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad.

  1. There are three other things that irked me about the whole thing that don’t make sense. In a pre-electric light world, how would you see the color of the quilt at night (which they talk about slaves doing), how would you know someone didn’t just like blue or copy a pattern, and finally have these ever left laundry on the line all night for more than one night you will discover it get mildewy and the cloth gets “rotten” before too many nights. I used to work at a historic village with a clothes washing station and when I wasn’t there no one took the clothes down and I can tell you that wouldn’t be something people normally did.

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