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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert,
"Facts & Fabrications:
Unraveling the Story of Quilts & Slavery"
New book by Barbara Brackman
Unraveling the Story of Quilts & Slavery"
Barbara Brackman, C&T Publishing. November, 2006
112 pages, $27.95
One of the hottest topics in the world of Black History is the story
of quilts and the Underground Railroad. Americans eager to discuss
slavery and emancipation are fascinated by tales of quilts used as
codes and signals in the dangerous journey to freedom. The
connection between a great
American folk art, a mysterious secret code and the adventure of the
Underground Railroad has created an enduring tale that is fast
becoming a part of American legend.
The role of quilts in the Underground Railroad has gained wide
acceptance, becoming part of today’s classroom
learning for children
and adults. Countless school curriculums include instructions for a
quilt made in the secret code. Museum personnel organizing exhibits
dedicated to the topic of escape from slavery feel obligated to
include a symbolic quilt. Historians often are asked questions such
- Is it true that quilts
were hung on clotheslines to signal escaping slaves of a "safe
- Were quilts read as maps
to tell escapees the route to safety?
- Did runaways use quilt
patterns with names like the Double Wedding Ring or the
Drunkard’s Path as code to communicate escape plans?
As a historian who has focused
on both textile history and the Civil War period, I often have to
explain that the story of quilts as code for those escaping on the
Underground Railroad is a myth rather than a historical fact. My
standard short answer: “We have no historical evidence of quilts
being used as signals, codes or maps. The tale of quilts and the
Underground Railroad makes a good story, but not good quilt
Historians, folklorists, museum curators and other professionals who
study slavery and American history are quite frustrated that the
myth of coded quilt patterns is becoming as established a
cornerstone of American history as other appealing but false tales
like George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or Betsy Ross
designing the first American flag.
Last October, the American Folklife Society, the leading
organization for professional folklorists, hosted a panel examining
the accuracy of such stories. There is no lack of accurate
information in print and online. When confronted by such historical
facts, the general public refuses to believe these myths are
fabrications. Some seem to view historians and folklorists as a gang
of bullies, ready to pounce on a charming and innocent story.
Historians, frustrated by myths that will not die, find the best
that they can do is offer an accurate history, one some people might
choose to accept. Yet, we do not want to leave the quilter, the
curator, the story teller and the school teacher without the
important hands-on learning tool that quilts can lend to a
curriculum on slavery. Rather than removing the art of quilting from
the story I hope to give them a historically accurate account of how
quilts figured in the lives of enslaved African-Americans.
The book will include patterns for twenty quilt blocks to represent
twenty chapters in the story from Africa to Reconstruction. Names
like “Catch Me If You Can,” “Lincoln’s Platform” and “Lost Ship” are
perfect for symbolizing various events, but it is important to
emphasize that these patterns have NO historical connection to
slave-made quilts. We can look at my pattern choices as an exercise
in poetic license. Every artist knows the importance of symbolism in
personal expression. Quilt pattern names are a form of poetry,
imagery that can evoke the past and words that can add layers of
symbolic meaning to a quilt's visual beauty. In this book I give
ideas for using pattern names as well as color and fabric style to
create quilts symbolizing the story of slavery and freedom.
Reprinted with permission from Barbara Brackman
Sheet on The "Quilt Code"
Other articles on the
© 2006 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use
of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.
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