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

August 10, 2005 . . . a recent post from the Quilt History List about the myth of the Underground Railroad quilts. Reprinted with permission from Kathy Moore. 

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Good evening all,

I know there has been much discussion on this, but I was hoping to clarify a
point based on a book reference I found today.

My understanding is that a lot of the debate here is over the notion of
quilts being specifically made with coded blocks to assist the underground railroad
in leading slaves to freedom. And then of course the logical counterpoint is
that the time required to make a quilt back then (or even now!) was such that
it is an impossible stretch of logic that there would have been time to craft
coded quilts in a timely manner to facilitate escape for slaves- a reasonable
point that would seem to end the debate right there.

Well, today I purchased a book called "A Shortcut to Drunkard's Path Easy
Applique Curves". I am having a blast with it already seeing how much fun I can
have with this, my favorite pieced pattern.

On page 5, the following text appears in a chapter titled "Drunkard's Path:
The History of a Quilt Block";

"Fortunately, the history of the Drunkard's Path (or whatever moniker
you choose to give it) is well documented. The Drunkard's Path played an
important part in two historical events- the Underground Railroad and the women's
temperance movement.

The Drunkard's Path block played a significant role in the journey of
slaves to freedom. The Underground Railroad could not openly broadcast
information about where, when, and how runaway slaves could arrive safely at their
destination. A system was therefore devised by which quilts were displayed,
whether on a clothesline or over a porch railing, that contained hidden messages.
The particular type of blocks in the quilt would tell the person making the
journey what to do. When the Drunkard's Path block was displayed, the runaways
would know to zigzag their path to make capture difficult."

On the surface this sounds more reasonable than the idea of a quilt being
crafted with hidden directions and messages- the notion that a given quilt type
that someone in town would possibly have on hand could be used to subtly send
more general signals.

Or is it that simple? I do get the gut feeling that "zigsagging" your path to
make capture difficult would ALWAYS have been a good idea.

Forgive me if I have raised a point already addressed that I did not see in
earlier postings, but this particular book reference comes off as very
plausible- which could make it a more accurate representation of what role quilts
might have played in the Underground Railroad, or a more dangerous distortion if
it is not supportable in any way or has been disproven.

On a final note, I have seen many known names posting on this group- so if
the writers of this book are here let me say up front I intend no disrepect, nor
am I trying to challenge your writings. I merely mean to have a discussion on
published words and understand their context in this debate at large.


Response from Kathy Moore:

About Drunkard's Path and the UGGR, Tom posted: "When the Drunkard's Path block was displayed, the runaways would know to zigzag their path to make capture difficult."

On the surface this sounds more reasonable than the idea of a quilt being crafted with hidden directions and messages- the notion that a given quilt type that someone in town would possibly have on hand could be used to subtly send more general signals.

Or is it that simple? I do get the gut feeling that "zigsagging" your path to make capture difficult would ALWAYS have been a good idea."

Tom, I think you've answered your own question here.

Please pardon my presumption, but you seem to have bought the premise that quilts were used to convey information to escaping slaves.

My advice to you is to take two aspirin, put your feet up and just THINK ABOUT IT!!!! Logic will surely intervene and you will realize the impractibility of this premise.

1. If you are escaping from a plantation, you would be traveling at night. You wouldn't be able to read quilt patterns in the dark.

2. If you try to get close enough to see a quilt pattern in the dark, the farm animals, especially dogs, will make noise or bark and chase you and they might event catch up with you and attack you. At the very least they will alarm their owners and anyone else nearby and you'll get caught! Pretty risky, don't you think?

3. In all the research done by really good academic historians there has not been one word of evidence or suggestion that quilt patterns were used to instruct escaping slaves.

4. Furthermore, there have been no eyewitness accounts found by slaves and former slaves (reference the WPA oral interviews of former slaves).

5. Furthermore, some of the patterns designated as having been used in these quilts aren't known to have existed before the Civil War. If they did exist then, there is no documentation to that effect and a lot of people have been looking for this information for a long time.

It sounds like you want to embrace this romantic story about the Underground Railroad and quilts and that you would like to accept it as true. Unfortunately, it is more likely that it is a mixture of misreading the historical evidence and a strong need to believe in a romantic notion of the nobility and kindness of a small group of people dealing with difficult times.

I, and many others, just want people to stop and think it through and realize the illogic of the whole premise. Let's not impose any more myths on the historical record about that whole ugly era. Let's let truth and reason prevail and can we all please stop fighting that ugly war????

Enough said.

Kathy Moore
Lincoln, NE

* The Myths of Quilts on the Underground Railroad

2005 - 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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