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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

The Frederick Douglass Statue with the Quilt Code Blocks Debate

by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

On Jan. 29, 2007, I was asked to answer some questions about the controversy over the Frederick Douglass statue to be placed in the northwest corner of Central park, which is also an entrance to Harlem. The controversy is over the “quilt code blocks” that were to be placed around him. All the letters and facts, sent in about this unsupported concept put forward in “Hidden in Plain View,” (HIPV) were given serious review and they are no longer going to be part of the statue. Nor will the title or text from the book be included on a plaque, but what will take their place, has not been decided. However, it’s not a total correction as they are still going to put a granite quilt with the statue. (See my suggestions in #5 below. I think they have merit as an alternative.)

I asked the reporter to send the questions by email, hoping to lessen the chance of being misquoted and changing my intent. This has happened too often with interviews about HIPV. Well, it didn’t work. My words were changed, and the meaning conveyed was inaccurate. I have asked for a retraction/correction. The paper will remain nameless for now.

However, the questions the reporter sent are good ones, and different from the usual ones. I thought some readers might think so, too. Here is the entire interview I gave to the reporter. A bit of it was correctly quoted in the paper, too.

1. - Is there a consensus within the historical community regarding the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the account given in "Hidden in Plain View"?

Yes, there is a consensus among quilt historians in America, that there is no evidence that quilts were used as messengers to slaves fleeing on the underground railroad. I am not aware of historians expert in the Civil War or slave experience, or American history professors or researchers who have found evidence of this either and declared it is valid. However, there are teachers of elementary school, and museum professionals, folklorists, and other professionals who agree there is no evidence of such, but believe that oral history could tell a different story. The only oral history is the one put forth by the book HIPV, from one woman, to one of the authors, in a private conversation. I am [not] convinced that this is considered oral history, instead, is one person’s story. The Story was told to the author, Ms. Tobin, three years before the book was published. The book was published a few months after the death of the storyteller, and therefore she could not be turned to for further information.

2. - How important are quilts as reflections of history and culture?

Quilts as material objects, no pun intended, can record an individual, town, organization community, state, or country’s history and culture. Depending on the quilt, much can be identified by noting its style, fabric types, batting, thread, dyes and printing on the fabric, the techniques used to make it, and any writing, in ink, cross-stitch or embroidery, or objects or letters appliquéd on it. These are fairly straight forward clues to the age, historical significance, and any cultural ties to a group, region, religion, or socio-political organization, now that the field of quilt history has collected data and research on quilts made during America’s short history, and also on characteristics of quilts immigrants brought to America.

3. - Can the quilt be incorporated in a less controversial way in the memorial?

I can see no reason for there to be a quilt included in this statue. What would the purpose be? FOR MORE, SEE THE SECOND PARAGRAPH OF #5.

4. - How did questions of the accuracy of this account of the quilt emerge? What role have you, Mr. Wright and professor Blight played?

I can only speak for myself of course. I read HIPV in 1999, through the eyes of a researcher and psychologist, trained to read information with a critical eye. Neither credible nor multiple sources of information to support the individual’s story were offered in this book. I was certain that it was a joke, a work of fiction, and I didn’t bother to give it another thought. The quilt study group I was in, talked about it and came to the same conclusion. At the same time Barbara Brackman, who was the expert on quilt dating and quilts known to be made for and during the Civil War era, also discussed the lack of evidence for quilts being used as messengers on the UGRR. This concept had been put forth in a children’s book a few years prior, and so none of us were hearing the idea for the first time. The questions of accuracy were occurring in the minds of anyone who knew that there had been no evidence of any such thing and this book was not convincing us that there was evidence now.

RE: my role - When the discussion among the public was getting louder and more people were considering this myth was true, I felt compelled to write my first article “The Underground Railroad and the use of Quilts as messengers for Fleeing Slaves" for my website AntiqueQuiltDating.com, in the winter of 2002. It turned out this was the first article denouncing the story put on the Web. Little did I know then. I wrote it in an afternoon at the local coffee spot; it was that easy to come up with reasons to find this book’s assertions about the use of quilts lacking credibility and to explain why the myth had caught on so quickly. Since then I wrote more articles with Giles R. Wright, the New Jersey Historical Commission expert on African-American history in NJ and on the UGRR in NJ. Our different backgrounds have joined to write two more informative articles for the general public, as we both find a lack of evidence for this theory in our respective fields. We are certainly open to any evidence to the contrary, however, there are no sides being taken here; we let the facts speak. The recorded oral histories, especially the Slave Narratives do not discuss or even allude to the use of quilts as messengers, nor do their diaries and newspapers, and leaders, such as Mr. Douglass. And to be clear, there has not been a single quilt found from the antebellum period that contains the blocks that HIPV says would be in a quilt used in such a way. In fact, many of the block patterns were not in existence at that time at all. It doesn’t seem unreasonable at all to think that one quilt would have been kept safe and been discovered by now.

5. - What would the construction of a memorial based on a disputed story mean for the image of Frederick Douglass and people's understanding of him?

It would put Douglass in the same mythical place as the cherry tree story put G. Washington. Historians exist today, unlike the time when Washington’s story was being sold as if a novel, and their place is to keep this kind of story from getting mixed with facts when a biography of a great man and a sad time in our history is being told in any form, bronze, book, film, museum exhibit, internet, any venue you can think of, the historian’s input is invaluable when history of America is being told.

There is much the artist can do to pay tribute to F. Douglass in this artwork. For example, why not have a bronze of his book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself”(1845) and his abolitionist paper “North Star” sitting around him in lieu of the quilt blocks. They are similar in shape and size and the accurately association with this slave’s life and contribution to the experience of American’s, salves and free people, in the antebellum period.

6. - Is accuracy the most important thing?
When it comes to history, an unqualified yes. When it comes to fiction, like HIPV, the story of one person’s telling, let her words be free to tell it and let it be known that it is her family story being told, through her family members who were alive then. This woman was not. One of the problems with the book is that it asserts that this happened on the underground railroad during the antebellum period.

- Sometimes people say that the ability of stories to move people may sometimes be more important than their accuracy--is this fair?

Who says that? Certainly no one who is talking about the telling of the history of a country and people who lived it. That line of thinking applies to forms of narration in psychotherapy, journal writing, fictional writing, or teaching creative writing, not in making a bronze statue in dedication to a once living man Frederick Douglass!

- Is there a place for this view in society, and how does this apply to the Douglass memorial?

I think I have already answered this.

Kimberly Wulfert, PhD
Quilt Historian and
Independent Researcher

Added February 19, 2007 - As of this date, I haven't heard back from the reporter about printing the retraction, after he said he'd speak to his editor about it.


* The Myths of Quilts on the Underground Railroad

© 2007 - 2015 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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