Marginalia – an ongoing project

The Underground Railroad Sampler is an instructional quilting book that unfortunately is centred around the myth of the use of quilts as a code system to help runaway slaves to escape using the underground railroad. This story told by Ozella McDaniel Williams is recorded in the book Hidden in Plain Viewpublished in 1999. But it is highly unlikely to be true. Put more strongly by historian Giles R. Wright is the Director of the New Jersey Historical Commission’s Afro-American History Program,

Hidden in Plain View is “sheer conjecture and speculation” that “greatly misrepresents” black history. “This book is selling like hotcakes,” he said, “because it presents a very, very appealing idea. But it is nonsense and a perfect example of what those of us who are attempting to do serious underground railroad research are up against.”

The very popular story, even featured on Oprah, seems to have been used as a marketing device to sell quilts, quilting materials and promote a for profit quilt museum and quilt lectures. It is a story with no corroborating evidence from either Underground Railroad history or quilt history. It seems to be an illogical story if examined in any detail with many factual errors and inconsistencies. It does a disservice to learning the history of the Underground Railroad and examining the gritty reality, true heroism and hardships of the time. For example, some blocks included in the code, such as the Log Cabin, were only created or named after the time of the Underground Railroad. Some of the supposed messages would have been irrelevant for escape, such as to build a log cabin after reaching Canada when you are free. Still, quilt code lesson plans are available and numerous children’s books have been written based on this myth. Thankfully there are also teachers creating lesson plans like this and home schoolers who are taking the opportunity to delve into the topic of fact versus folklore.

The Underground Railroad “Quilt Code” FAQ provides a short summary and I have added it to my copy of Underground Railroad Sampler

I will be annotating my copy of  Underground Railroad Sampler and using a page or two for blackout poetry, usually done with newspaper articles. But mainly I will be adding marginalia. I will continue to add my own messages to my quilt, which I have been calling my yoga quilt. The way it has been going, each square has brought to mind something I need to hear, most recently I finished this square.

My marginalia will include information from quilt historians and historians of black history sources such as these:

NEW JERSEY’S UNDERGROUND RAILROAD MYTH-BUSTER Giles Wright is on a Mission to Fine Tune Black History; Debunks New Slave Quilts Book

Betsy Ross Redux: The Underground Railroad “Quilt Code” by Leigh Fellner

Putting it in Perspective: The Symbolism of the Underground Railroad Quilts, by Kris Driessen – with many more links.

Driessen concludes with this quote by Fergus M. Bordewich (the author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America),

In an age when self-interest has been elevated in our culture to a public and political virtue, the Underground Railroad still has something to teach: that every individual, no matter how humble, can make a difference in the world, and that the importance of one’s life lies not in money or celebrity, but in doing the right thing, even in silence or secrecy, and without reward. This truth doesn’t need to be encoded in fiction in order to be heard.”

It would be a shame to learn a quilt code instead of learning about true heroes of the time such as Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass. Here are an excerpt from an address given by Douglass in 1852, speaking on “The Meaning of 4th of July for the Negro”, performed by Morgan Freeman.


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