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