Quilts in Children’s Books, Part Two: The Underground Railroad Quilt Code

 

Underground Railroad Quilt CodeThe Monkey Wrench turns the Wagon Wheel toward Canada on a Bear’s Paw trail to the Crossroads. Once they got to the Crossroads, they dug a Log Cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin Bow Ties and go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange Double Wedding Rings. Flying Geese stay on the Drunkard’s Path and follow the Stars.

–The Underground Railroad Quilt Code, according to Ozella Williams, reported in Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.


It’s no big surprise that the Quilt Code story caught on. Slaves escaping to freedom via the Underground Railroad in the dark of night, their way mapped for them by quilts hanging on clotheslines or low-hanging branches–all the elements of a great saga are here: heroes, villains, dangerous journeys, secret knowledge, the dream of freedom.

Underground Railroad Quilt CodeGiven what a marvelous story this is, it’s also no surprise that more than one children’s book writer has latched onto it. Books that feature quilts as guides for slaves making their way north to freedom include Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad Quilt in the Sky by Faith Ringgold, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud, Under the Quilt of Dark by Deborah Hopkinson, The Secret to Freedom by Marcia Vaughan, Unspoken: A Story of the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole … and the list goes on.

One of the most beautiful (and beautifully written) of these books is Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, which follows an African-American family through many generations, from slavery to freedom to the Civil Rights movement to the present day.

 

While Show Way is about more than the Underground Railroad Quilt Code, it relies on the idea of the code to frame the story. Given the beautiful illustrations by Hudson Talbott and the silver Newbery Honor Book sticker on the book’s cover, Show Way will perpetuate the myth of the Quilt Code for years to come.

Underground Railroad Quilt CodeIt’s hard to accept that the Quilt Code is a myth, and many people don’t. When doing research for this post, I found fairly recent YouTube videos of lectures that posited the Code as a historical truth. Amazon.com reviews of Hidden in Plain View written as recently as 2016 applaud it for what it reveals about our country’s history during slavery, even though quilt and Underground Railroad historians have been refuting the historicity of the Code since the book’s publication.

In a Time magazine article, folklorist Laurel Horton, who has done extensive research about the Quilt Code, told a reporter she had stopped trying to convince people that the code never existed. Instead she’s focused on why people continue to believe even though there is almost no historical evidence that quilts were used to guide slaves to freedom.

“This whole issue made me realize it’s not a matter of one group having the truth and another not,” Horton says in the article. “It’s matter of two different sets of beliefs. It’s made me realize that belief doesn’t have a lot to do with factual representation. People feel in their gut that it’s true so no one can convince them in their head that it’s otherwise.”

The picture books I’ve read about the Underground Railroad quilts offer compelling stories and are visually lovely. I suspect they’ll be used in elementary school classrooms for a long time to come. But as we seem to be moving ever closer to a time when facts are relative and need not be based on anything more than belief, I hope that this myth will be busted sooner rather than later.

 

For more about the Underground Railroad Quilt Code controversy, follow this link to read Leigh Fellner’s booklength investigation, Betsy Ross Redux, available as a downloadable PDF:

https://web.archive.org/web/20130120160626/http://ugrrquilt.hartcottagequilts.com/betsy%20ross%20redux.pdf

To watch Laurel Horton’s lecture at the International Quilt Study Center on the Quilt Code, just hit play:

To watch a video reading of Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLmiRkdIWI0

Underground Railroad historian Eric Giles on the UGRR Quilt Code Myth: http://www.historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews11_doc_01a.shtml

Quilts in Children’s Books, Part I

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Children’s book author and illustrator Denise Fleming has this to say about what makes a good picture book:

1. Rhythm in both text and art.

2. A tight text rich in language.

3. Use of repetition or refrain which encourages the listeners to
participate.

4. A sense of playfulness and joy.

5. And rhyme, when it works, is a plus.

Sort of sounds like what makes a good quilt, doesn’t it? Okay, so instead of tight text, I guess we should substitute tight stitches, but otherwise, I’m sold.

It’s not surprising that quilts frequently appear in children’s books. Quilts bring to mind comfort and being comforted; they’re an emblem of home.

And there’s something elemental about a quilt. Sometimes I think we mis-remember childhood as being simple (it’s not) because when we’re young, the pieces of our lives are few. There’s home, there’s the dog that lives across the street, there’s the car, there’s the shopping center. As we get older, we accumulate experiences, responsibilities, and debts of all sorts. Things get complicated.

But the quilt your mom pulls out of the linen closet when you’re five and you’ve got the flu isn’t complicated at all; it’s essential. (Just like your mom.)

The quilt in Grandmother Winter is a very special quilt, although some of the quilters among us might wonder if a quilt stuffed with goose feathers (as Grandmother Winter’s quilt is) wouldn’t more accurately be called a duvet. No matter; the fact is, it wouldn’t be the same story if, after spending summer and fall collecting feathers from her flock of geese, Grandmother Winter shook her duvet over the town to make it snow.

No, it’s much better to read,

When Grandmother shakes her quilt

children come running from their homes,

catching snowflakes cold on their tongues.

Grown-ups build their woodpiles high

and scurry for sweaters, mittens and skis.

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Grandmother Winter (Houghton-Mifflin, 1999) was written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by the marvelous Beth Krommes. It’s a perfect read for when the snow starts to fall.

I’m a quilter, and I assume most of you reading this are quilters, too. Many of us live in houses virtually overrun by quilts (and I say, keep ’em coming!). But in some families, quilts are rare. In fact, if there’s a quilt at all, it’s often one that’s been passed down from generation to generation, a prized heirloom only taken out for special occasions.

In Patricia Palacco’s family, the heirloom quilt was made soon after Palacco’s great-grandmother, Anna, a Russian immigrant, arrived in the U.S. as a girl. In Palacco’s book, The Keeping Quilt, we learn that the quilt began its life as Anna’s babushka, Uncle Vladimir’s shirt, and Aunt Havalah’s nightdress, which were cut into animals and flowers and appliqued onto a white background.

The quilt serves over the years as the sabbath table tablecloth, a ground cover for picnics, and when Great-Grandma Anna marries Great-Grandfather Sasha, the quilt becomes a wedding huppa. The quilt is passed down to Grandma Carle, to Palacco’s mother Mary Ellen, and eventually to Palacco, who one day will pass the quilt onto her own daughter, Traci Denise.

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Patricia Palacco is one of my favorite children’s book writers and illustrators. If I could draw, I would want to draw exactly the way she does. The illustrations in The Keeping Quilt are lively in spite of the fact that except when depicting the quilt itself, all the drawings are in shades of brown.

If you would like to hear The Keeping Quilt read as you look at the pictures, watch this YouTube video.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco (Aladdin Paperbacks/Simon & Schuster, 1988)

Finally for today, we have Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Set in a small farming community, in an unspecified, way-back time, Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt is a sweet story of a man who discovers the joy of stitching. Sam wants to join his wife’s quilting bee, but is soundly rejected (“‘Don’t be silly,’ the club president said. ‘We can’t have a man here bungling everything!'”). Sam convinces the men of the community to start their own quilting bee and to make a quilt to compete against the women’s in the County Fair.

This is a light, lively book with folksy illustrations that mirror the story’s tone. A note at the end of the book informs the reader that the border designs for each picture are actual quilt patterns and then gives the names in order of their appearance. Very fun!

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Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1983).

Stay tuned for Part II of Quilts in Children’s Books, where we’ll take a look at that beloved myth: the use of quilts in the Underground Railroad.