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Code of Controversy: Civil War Quilts and Beyond

By Cheryl S. Cohen © 2002, all rights reserved

Personal stories about the perilous journeys of slaves through the Underground Railroad have been memorialized through the quilts and fabrics of the African-American community for generations. Secret codes and symbols purportedly designed to help with safe passage have emerged in many ways since escaping slaves made their way on foot through unfamiliar and dangerous territories to freedom during the Civil War.

These methods were nothing new to a people whose history was steeped in secret messages in order to escape persecution. In Africa, the syntax of geometric designs on quilt tops, as well as body decoration and textiles, architectural ornamentation, sculpture and paintings have been used for centuries as a means of covert social protest and messaging.

However, the same apparently cannot be proved beyond doubt when investigating the use of quilts as maps and codes for the Underground Railroad.

The Theory
According to oral tradition, slaves, free blacks and white abolitionists alike used quilts made of familiar patterns to communicate the location of safe houses, dictate escape routes and convey other information vital to survival and escape, by displaying them for specific periods of time -- in plain view.

For example, every combination of colors, intersections of line and form, every pattern and stitch in a quilt could convey vital data while simply being hung over a windowsill to air out.

Before quilter Ozella McDaniel Williams died in Charleston,  South Carolina in 1998, she revealed a secret code believed to be somewhere between fact and legend. In the book, "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad," co-authors Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard wrote that Williams' words seemed to confirm a truth formerly only hinted at by scholars familiar with the history of the Underground Railroad.

". . . 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."

What sounds like lyrical folktale, is the stuff that propels the long-held theory that encoded quilts were used by slaves as both navigational tools and manuals to escape bondage. Based on historical and topographical research and information supplied by the elderly Williams, the authors came up with the most likely interpretations of the code.

The Proof
Roland Freeman, historian, photographer and author of "A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories," has spent the last 25 years researching quilts, including more than five years trying to find evidence that these stories were true. He came up empty.

"There is a whole group of people who wallow in the concept of how we got over, but I couldn't find any evidence to support that," said Freeman. "People want to believe, and as Gershwin said, 'It ain't necessarily so.'"

In fact, when National Geographic offered Freeman the assignment of mapping the exact routes taken by slaves on the Underground Railroad, he had to decline because there was no way to prove any specific routes existed.

During the Civil War, in slave-holding states, it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write, so they resorted to other methods of communication to tell their stories, or to convey mapping information.

During a recent quilt show at the San Diego Historical Society Museum, Freeman told the participants they should be careful on how they presented information about the quilts. "They were getting ready to dedicate their entire show to this theory, but it's all based on hearsay," he said, referring to Williams' story.

Quilt historians and folklorists argue, however, that the oral tradition -- very much a part of African and African-American culture -- is as valid as any written documentation.

Freeman disagrees. "How could this mass conspiracy exist between an ethnic people, given their laws and restrictions?" he asked. "Most people want to read something they'll believe," he said of Williams' story.

The Value
Nancy Druckman, Director of American Folk art at Sotheby's, Inc. in New York, has somewhat the same problems when trying to put a value on quilts from that era.

Last October, Sotheby's tried to auction a rare and important pieced calico and cotton quilt top by the enslaved African, "Yellow Bill," which was inscribed to his owner, Catharine W. Dean, New Orleans, March 18, 1852.  It was expected to bring a price somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000. Widely exhibited, it had an attached paper label indicating that it was "Stitched by Yellow Bill's own hands," but these attributions weren't enough to prove its authenticity to potential buyers. The quilt failed to sell.

"It depends on the marketplace to take a leap of faith," said Druckman. "The buyers need to see how they were handed down." Other difficulties with proving the authenticity and value of these quilts, she said, is that some people have jealously guarded the details.

"There is a fair amount of territorial possession," Drukman explained. "This is a very important, fragile and sparse cultural history of a people who are very protective of it and want to see it handled in the right way. You cross areas of patrimony, an ethnic pride which says, 'This is ours.' "

Adding to the difficulty, is the fragile nature of textiles, the hard use to which these quilts were exposed, the lye soap washing and the lapse of over a century. Also, those who reportedly followed their maps and codes are no longer around to document their authenticity.

Occasionally, quilts from that era are sold from private collections or estates. On eBay.com, for example, a tiny crib quilt said to be from the mid-1800s recently sold for $515, and a regular-sized quilt from the same period has sold for more than $850.

The known few "slave quilts" that are completely documented, are extremely rare and are displayed in museums around the world.

For example, The Graveyard Quilt, madein 1839 by Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell, has been characterized as the "best known of all mourning quilts," and is a social history reflecting an early nineteenth-century attitude toward death. The Bible Story Quilt, sewn by freed slave Harriet Powers in 1886, is made of 299 appliquéd pieces of cloth with each panel depicting a scene of the Bible.

"Some things are just priceless; they're just not for sale," said Freeman.

Well, almost. Quilters who make reproductions of the some of the more famous quilts have seen their sales stymied because China has been granted licenses to reproduce five of them.

Freeman's richly-produced book serves as a national survey of current African-American quilt makers. It includes photos and stories from all over the country, featuring notables and everyday people. Writer Alice Walker is featured in one photo, seated in her San Francisco home near a bright fuchsia, black, green and maroon quilt that she worked on while writing her manuscript for "The Color Purple."

Earthleen Briggs, a retired schoolteacher and owner of Ethnic Quilted Fabrics in Lemon Grove, Calif., said that it is only in recent years that has she found a number of African-Americans participating in quilting exhibits.

"The apprehension was that people felt the colors of our fabrics were too loud and gaudy, and there was no way of incorporating a decent design that was appealing to the eye," she said.

The apprehension is waning. Quilting, by no means strictly an African-American phenomenon, is experiencing a renaissance across the nation. Web sites, magazines and quilting bees are sprouting up throughout the United States, spanning gender and age. People of all persuasions are simultaneously piecing together pieces of fabric and pulling together spiritual, historical and cultural threads.

"This is the material of material culture," said Druckman of the Civil War-era quilts. "And, if you find one that can really be proved (authentic), it's worth a great deal of money."

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