Craft and empowerment -The Underground Railroad Quilts

By Gillian Valladares Castellino

Underground Railroad quilt block patterns and what they were supposed to have meant: Source: Underground Railroad Quilt Code website

I have often wondered why a art-making or craft as an everyday activity is so discounted in contemporary society. It is seen as a low value-add activity which can be done more cheaply by low-skilled people for very little remuneration and that category of people are mainly women (we won't go there in this post). Art and craft are also seen as indulgences which few people in this time-poor world, can afford to spend time on. This led to the stray thought - can art or craft ever be used by ordinary people in ordinary settings or even more unlikely by dis-empowered people in severely restricted settings as a means of empowerment, not just for themselves, but for others? Then I chanced upon the theory of the Underground Railroad quilts....

According to a theory promoted in a book called Hidden in Plain View, by Raymond Dobard Jr and Jacqueline Tobin (1999), quilt blocks were used to alert runaway African-American slaves in the American South, to the danger of re-capture and also to point them in the direction of 'safe' houses and the underground railroad to freedom in the northern US states or Canada. The theory concerns the period from 1780 to 1860 and has sparked a lot of controversy as to its authenticity. It is based on oral testimony from a former quilter Ozella McDaniel Williams of South Carolina who claimed that quilt blocks were used to communicate how to prepare for escape, what to do on the trip (via railroad to the North American states) and where to go on the road to freedom.

In order to memorize the whole code, a sampler quilt was used. The sampler quilt would include all of the patterns arranged in the order of the code. Traditionally, the sampler quilt was used to teach pattern piecing. Think of it as a book of fabric patterns. If the mistress or anyone saw a person conducting a class on patterns, praise for industrious behavior would be the outcome. No one would suspect what was really taking place. An example of how the quilt code could be translated was: "The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel towards Canada on a bear's paw trail to the cross roads. Once at the crossroad, dig a log cabin in the ground. "Shoofly" says to dress up in cotton and bowties and go to the cathedral church, exchange double wedding rings, else, follow the flying geese, but stay on the drunkard's path and follow the stars."

Whether or not the theory is true, or just another myth, is immaterial. It represents creativity on the part of the person who created it and by those who followed, to take a really dark chapter in the history of the American South and turn it into a vehicle for education and empowerment.

The idea of the Underground Railroad quilts has been used to teach African-American history to school children check out an example of this at the Underground Railroad Quilt Code website. The 'Underground railroad project for children' website which has since removed from the net, made even more creative use of this theory. It's goals were to help children learn about the history surrounding the Underground Railroad and to analyse and process their knowledge by designing a 'monument' to celebrate it. Children were required to document the design process by creating drawings of their monument and writing text inscriptions and explanations about their design choices. They were required to present this in the form of either 3-D models, a 'Dedication Speech' a music selection, a press release or a poem. To help them through the process, they were provided with a variety of on-line resource links and book lists. The children created their monuments in a variety of media, including wax, clay, foam, papier mache, plaster of Paris, soap, wire and aluminium foil. Topics they explored, besides history, included, monument styles over time and place and possible careers(e.g. publicist, designer, historian and arts specialist).

The controversy over the facts surrounding the theory still rages, but creative people have left that behind and re-used the myth itself as a source of inspiration. In doing this, they have fashioned a blueprint for re-framing traumatic pasts creatively and constructively.

If you want to check out the quilts and quilt block patterns themselves, or details surrounding the controversy on-line, try the Patches from the Past website, Quilt Patterns through time, Bible Quilt Patterns, Putting it in Perspective:
The Symbolism of Underground Railroad quilts
and for books try the Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns by Barbara Blackman, Facts and Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery: 8 Projects, 20 Blocks, First-Person Accounts also by Blackman, it focusses on the controversy, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline Tobin (for the original theory) and finally Underground Railroad Sampler by Eleanor Burns.


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