Friday, March 21, 2014

Did a Secret Quilt Code Help Slaves Escape to Freedom?

What is the Real Story Behind the Creation of the Myth?
(Updated August 7, 2019)

Quilt historians across the country are tempted to grind their teeth in frustration as the Underground Railroad "secret quilt code" stories start hitting the news every February, realizing once again their efforts to shine some light on this "myth" seem to have come to naught.

Please don't be discouraged by the length of my on-going research that you will encounter below.  Take it slowly. In fact, come back and read some more, rather like chapters.  It is truly a fascinating story how we Americans have created a new cultural myth.  After all, myths are as old as human civilization!

Dr. Giles Wright, former director of the African-American History Program New Jersey Historical Commission has written, "What I think they've done is they've taken a folklore and said it's historical fact. They offer no evidence, no documentation, in support of that argument." Source of quote.


(The book is often referred to as HIPV to shorten its long title.)

"Hidden in Plain View:  A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad", 
written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard,  
was  first published in February 1999. 


Just before the book was released and again shortly thereafter, I met and chatted with Raymond Dobard at two separate events and also conversed with him privately by email and by phone.  (The fact that he was a friend-of-a-friend helped me make my connection with him.)  I never could pin Dobard down about what "secret quilt code" really meant to him or if he really thought it had actually been used other than it simply being the oral history or folk tale that one family had passed down.  (The authors, Dobard and Tobin, never found another source outside this one family.)

Once Dobard  appeared on the Oprah show in February 1999, the myth took off like a prairie fire as journalists from all over sent requests for interviews and event planners sought him for speaking engagements. It was the "hot" topic of the moment and the press loved it! Why not. It made for great story telling. The public loved it and the story soon took on a life of its own as the latest cultural myth. But quilt historians were soon up in arms over it.  I taped a couple of his radio/TV interviews in 1999 for my own research purposes and and continued to follow the story closely as more and more quilt historians and Underground Railroad historians challenged the story.

Every year during Black History Month the myth / legend / story of the so-called "secret quilt code of the Underground Railroad" that Raymond Dobard and Jacqueline Tobin launched into the public's view in early 1999, raises its mighty head once again.

But, wait. Myths and legends have a purpose 
in human culture, right?

Click  to read about author here.

Before HIPV there was the child's book 
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt published in 1993.

But before Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt
there was Following the Drinking Gourd in 1992.

What proceeded the children's books?

In her 1990 book "Stitched from the Soul", Gladys-Marie Fry asserted that quilts were used to communicate safe houses and other information about the Underground Railroad, which was a network through the United States and into Canada of "conductors", meeting places, and safe houses for the passage of African Americans out of slavery. This theory, however, is disputed among historians for no factual proof had ever been found that quilts were used to communicate "safe houses".

However, escaping slavery was generally an act of "complex, sophisticated and covert systems of planning". Click any of the links in this long post to do more research on your own.


An account of the underground railroad from one who was there and kept notes while he helped as many as 800 slaves escape.

Perhaps one of the accounts of the underground railroad that is least disputed is William Still's 1872 book based on the diaries and records he kept as he helped as many as 800 slaves escape before the end of slavery. Click the link that follows to read the whole book on-line: "Underground Railroad A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Straggles of the Slaves in their efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author". 

But why did this secret Underground Railroad quilt code legend just suddenly seem to appear after  the two children's books appeared?

Did the two children's books inspire the story Ozella McDaniel Williams began to tell Jacqueline Tobin in 1993? Unfortunately, Mrs. Williams died before the Dobard / Tobin book was published so we can no longer ask her if these books influenced her. Williams claimed it was a story passed down in one family's history - her family.

After the Dobard / Tobin book was published, a few more members of Ozella's family stepped forward to claim they too had been aware of the tale for years; only they had a slightly different version of Ozella's story. This is the nature of "oral" history and myths and legends.

Where do Myths and Legends come from?

Like many legends and myths, we may never get to that "first" instance the oral story itself emerged. But we can usually pin point when it first appears in print.

But even then, we still don't usually know "for sure" where, when and through whom the first telling of a "legend" or "myth" by word of mouth appears.

Why do Myths and Legends arise, even today?

Legends and myths seem to meet a need in our lives. Have you ever wondered about the "why" of that? It's a great story onto itself. Read what Joseph Campbell has to say about myths. Or just google "myth-making" or "urban legends".  Urban legends are alive and well all over the world today. Also check Wiki for Urban Legends.  Urban legends are just a newer form of myth-making.

Just google the phrase "urban legends" or "urban legends on campus" or even "African-American urban legends".  Here is a link to one 2017 article by two academics about the possible purpose of urban legends with a quote from the article below:

"Psychologically, urban legends are a way for us to make sense of the world and manage threat in a safe environment. From the perspective of believers, myths act as proof and reinforce existing beliefs. This is important because they help to validate a person’s worldview and in doing so legitimatises their fears as real and genuine."

The REAL History of the Underground Railroad

In spite of all that we do know about the history of the Underground Railroad through written records and documents from that era, people are still drawn to colorful legends and myths about the UGRR that are unprovable.

Even historical societies that promote "real" UGRR history often have something about "the secret quilt code" added to their website just because the public has been constantly asking about it since the book Hidden in Plain View appeared in 1999.

Though these historical societies and websites may call it a "theory" rather than a "fact", they have enough marketing savvy to make good use of the widespread public interest in the code by adding it to their websites. 

Here is what Wiki has to say on the matter of the secret quilt code with lots of references you can check out.

1999 Book Reviews About the Dobard/Tobin Book

Notice what the New York Times Book Review wrote about HIPV?  "Mesmerizing..." 

Yes, it is mesmerizing -- as a "story". But is the story historically accurate?

Many reviewers did find it mesmerizing! It is indeed a story adults could love as well as children. It has all the parts needed for a good unsolved mystery....a legend with a good story line.

But what most reviewers failed to note is that 
the authors did not solve the mystery. 

In fact the author, Jacqueline Tobin,
actually claimed they didn't really know 
what the real meaning of each block was.

"Hidden in Plain View is the story of one woman's family," explains Tobin, a journalist and teacher.... (and one of the authors) "It's frustrating to be attacked and not allowed to celebrate this amazing oral story of one family's experience," says Tobin. "Whether or not it's completely valid, I have no idea, but it makes sense with the amount of research we did."  Source - Time

How do we explore and document 
"theories" based on oral history?

First, oral history is a whole different field compared to documentable history. It's wise to understand the difference and how the academics approach these two very different fields.

In fact, the reliability quotient of EITHER form of history is constantly debated, generation after generation!

It takes hard work to "document" (some would say "prove") what a layman may consider a historical fact. Today I know that many things I grew up thinking I understood and "knew to be so" as a child or even young adult, were in fact not so. That's what research and learning is all about.

Does the Secret Quilt Code 
have a Documentable Paper Trail?

Or is it speculation about one woman's story within one family?

"Whether or not it is completely true...", the authors say they wanted to get the  story "out there" so that others might follow in their footsteps and look for more clues and evidence.

This is a natural progression of research for unproved theories.  Research based on a "theory" that comes from an "oral" source is especially challenging.  Therefore, you publish and hope others might be able to build upon your theory.

How Did Their Theory Hold Up?

Above: Giles R. Wright (1935-2009), former director of the Afro-American History Program, New Jersey Historical Commission, Trenton

Several quilt historians very quickly proved that some blocks used in the "supposed secret quilt code" didn't even exist during the time of slavery. Read an article about the in-depth research done by Leigh Fellner by clicking here. (Unfortuantely, Leigh Fellner's own well researched website on this subject no longer has a viable link.) Also read historian Giles R. Wright, Director of the New Jersey Historical Commission's Afro-American History Program by clicking here.  Challenge yourself to read widely and in depth as both these researchers did.

Theories vs Proven Documentable Facts in History

But how many people who read the book "got that part" of Tobin's and Dobard's statement in the book that their presentation was a "theory" --  not a proven fact?  

It was the marketing efforts on the publisher's part, in my opinion, that obscured this very significant statement within the authors' story. And once the publisher's PR department got one of the authors (Raymond Dobard) invited onto The Oprah Show during Black History Month, the book received a strong plug from Oprah. Book sales soared and a myth that was struggling to be born took off big time.

Did Harriet Tubman ever mention the secret QUILT code in her work? No, but some of the organizers in the Underground Railroad network itself apparently did have its coded words which they used in verbal and written communications.

The Aftermath of the Myth's Appearance on Oprah -- Secret Quilt Code Taught in Schools

Within a year the quilt code story began to make its way into school curriculums. Trying to do away with this "secret quilt code" story in our public school system is rather like trying to do away with "Princess stories" or trying to keep boys from pretending they are "Super Heroes". Myths do have their purpose.

There is now hope that clearer education will prevail!

However, there is hope! Here is what one educational group in the State of Ohio has done in preparing Lesson Plans using HIPV to teach critical thinking. What a delight to stumble across this program several months ago. I found it at the Ohio Literacy Resource Center at Kent State University.  E-mail:

What do African Americans think about this story?

"Residents of Oberlin, which was founded by abolitionists, have long been aware of their town's involvement in the Underground Railroad. In 1982 members of Oberlin Seniors documented Oberlin's Underground Railroad activities in the Oberlin Underground Railroad Quilt. Quiltmakers included fifth-generation descendants of both fugitive slaves and abolitionists. Their quilt has been used as a teaching tool in the Oberlin public schools. Like the Amherstburg school children, Oberlin third-graders made an Underground Railroad Quilt in 1989, as the culmination of a course in local history."

Click here for the quote SOURCE:

The above event took place in Oberlin, Ohio well before the book "Hidden in Plan View" book came out in 1999.

Seems a little unusual the code wasn't mentioned at Oberlin's event since Ohio was such a busy passage way for escaping slaves in no small part due to the Quakers in Oberlin.

Wouldn't someone have made a quilt about the secret quilt code for this project, if in fact such a code had been used to help escaping slaves?  But they didn't because there was no such known code in 1989.  Hidden in Plain View had not yet been written.

However, the Oberlin, Ohio, project presented some great UGRR history for the Underground Railroad had a strong presence in Ohio and left much recorded history behind.  But there is NO mention of the UGRR secret quilt code in the Ohio project.

Everyone has Their Opinion

As to what African American quilters think of the code today, from what I have personally heard from some of them, they are on both sides of the fence -- just as are the non-African American quilters. There are those who have fallen in love with the story and those who are upset at the scholarship behind it. Some African American scholars are even upset at how The Code now seems to have become the "flagship" for Black History Month overshadowing truly important people and facts in African American history.

The most outspoken African American author and curator about the lack of veracity in the so-called quilt code that I know personally is Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi. (Dr. Mazloomi is an author, curator and quilter and the founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network and the 2016 Inductee of The Quilters Hall of Fame. Her desire to tell the African American experience in cloth fuels her exploration in appliqué and narrative quilts. ) You can see what she has to say on the matter of the secret quilt code in the series "Why Quilts Matter" that Shelly Zegart released in August 2011.

The UGRR quilt code is one of the subjects Shelly Zegart tackles. (I interviewed Shelly about the making of this series in 2012 at the annual American Quilt Study Group seminar.) You can see Dr. Mazloomi on the second disc of the series, 9th segment, under "Quilt Scholarship: Romance and Reality".  (As I have posted before, I am a big fan of this series and assisted with one section of the Discussion Guide.)

Why Do Quilts Matter

Dr. Mazloomi stated, "What I think they've done is they've taken a folklore and said it's historical fact. They offer no evidence, no documentation, in support of that argument." Source of quote.

Giles R. Wright (1935-2009), former director of the Afro-American History Program, New Jersey Historical Commission, Trenton, has had much to say about this "quilt code myth".  In 2000, Mr. Wright wrote a critique titled: Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad and presented it at an event co-sponsored by Camden County Historical Society and Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission in 2001. You can read an update of Wright's article here.

To read another interesting analysis of the book, its research and its methodology,  go to  click here. Lection is a site devoted to popular-culture book reviews.

An excerpt from the article by Tim Morris whose link is cited above:

I picked up Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard's Hidden in Plain View while on a Civil War tour of Tennessee and Mississippi battlefields last week. Subtitled "a secret story of quilts and the underground railroad," the book intrigued me because it mixes my mother's profession (quilting) with my own interests in American history. The book still intrigues me, but more as storytelling and rhetoric than as history.

The authors are insistent that what we count as history needs to change, though: Tobin and Dobard are adamant that oral tradition and material culture are as important evidence for events and their interpretation as the textual documents so beloved of conventional historians. But I find Hidden in Plain View frequently wanting as an analysis of oral tradition and material culture, and that is the great stumbling block for me to acceptance of this book as authoritative.

"What to do! What to do!"  

Does anything need to be done?

Quilters (and other folks) who believe this "story" don't like to be told it isn't "true"....especially if they learned it from someone they have an emotional connection to.  Nor to people like to be told they are "wrong".  And of course there are still folks who think that just because it got published in a book, it must be true. Those are facts of life in dealing with human nature.

The secret quilt code is a modern legend that went "viral" very quickly. 

Personally, I think what this story DOES offer is the opportunity to pique people's curiosity so that they ask more questions about this particular historical era!

Also, if you have never thought much about the cultural heritage that Africans may have brought with them, maybe this book will encourage you to start asking yourself some new questions. But be forewarned, you will need to read way beyond this book to get your answers. 

In my opinion, "Hidden In Plain View" is an attempt at loosely weaving together oral history, textile history, material culture, and comparative mythology, to name just a few of the fields of research that inform this issue. 

My hope, if you do read this book (keeping in mind that there are a number of historical inaccuracies in it), that you will want to know more about at least one aspect of the various questions and historical events the authors raise and that you will then go looking for answers!

It is a fascinating subject from so many different perspectives! 

Quilts matter! They are carriers of community and family history. People are deeply attached to them! 

To Life!

Karen at Quilt History Reports

PS: here are two EXCELLENT websites to explore on the matter:

1) For the longest time Leigh Fellner's well researched website Betsy Ross redux: the Underground Railroad "Quilt Code" was the best source of the details of this story.  Unfortunately, Leigh's website  no longer has a viable link. However, here is a link to a comment she posted in 2007.

Quoting Fellner from the above link: 

Neither the arrow nor any other quilt pattern "means" anything other than the quilter thought it was an attractive design. Please see my site for a full discussion of the "Quilt Code" hoax.

In October 2007 I made contact with a woman who sold quilts in the same tourist mall as did the original "Quilt Code" woman, Ozella McDaniel. She said McDaniel used to tell her "quilt code" stories to tourists, then laugh about it to the other sellers, to whom she was very open about the story being a complete fabrication.

I also learned that the "Quilt Code Museum" (really a quilt store) run by Ozella's niece in the "Underground Atlanta" shopping district has closed for lack of business. Notable is that she complained to one blogger that few of her visitors were African-American. In other words, it's white folk who have bought into this infantalizing myth (and indeed, most of the people trying to make a buck off it are also white). Posted by Leigh Fellner  on  Mon Nov 19, 2007  at  06:48 AM

Another article:

2) The Underground Railroad and the Use of Quilts as Messengers for Fleeing Slaves
    researched and written by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

And one more item:

The following was posted to my Facebook page October 9, 2012 and sent to Charleston Daily Mail.

To the Editors of Charleston Daily Mail,

I am a West Virginian by birth with roots that go way back*.

I began studying quilt history in 1981 when the American Quilt Study Group was first formed in Mill Valley, California. AQSG was the first effort in our nation to offer formalized quilt history research to a membership that contained both academics and independent quilt historians. We are over 1,000 strong today.

I would like to respectfully challenge the veracity of the myth that quilts were used as codes in the Underground Railroad among escaping slaves that you write about in your newspaper. It is well documented among quilt historians that the code is a myth based on oral history passed down by one family in South Carolina and has no basis in documented factual history. In fact, the family members don’t even agree about the details of the myth that has been passed down. Prominent Underground Railroad historian Dr. Giles Wright (an African American scholar, I might add) has also published a pamphlet debunking the quilt code.

It is a very unfortunate situation that an oral myth from one family has been given so much prominence and factual acceptance in American school curriculums and is now widely "believed as fact" overseas as well. The book on which the Quilt Code Myth is based--Hidden in Plain View--was first published in 1999 and then widely misinterpreted. I have met one of the authors twice and have talked with him and corresponded with him.

There are so many documentable reasons why quilts could not have been used along the Underground Railroad as some in this one family claim. Did one family member carry a quilt with them as they fled slavery? Possibly. But were quilts used as secret codes, no. Here is a link to the definitive facts and the in-depth research that has been done by Leigh Fellner about the highly misunderstood and misinterpreted UGRR Quilt Code. (Unfortuantely, as of this update ... July 14, 2019 ...  Fellner's website itself is no longer available.)

See also the new 9-part video series called "Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics" created by Shelly Zegart, another prominent quilt historian. In this series Zegart interviews Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, an African American scholar from Cincinnati, Ohio. Like Dr. Wright mentioned above, Dr. Mazloomi states unequivocally that she finds no factual merit in the UGRR Quilt Code myth either. I recently interviewed Zegart about the making of this series while in Lincoln, NE for a research conference. I strongly encourage you to consider offering this new series at West Virginia State University to stimulate open discussion about why quilts really matter in our culture. The series offers a free downloadable PDF Study Guide to go with it. You can learn more here

As an aside, a book on the history of the quilts of West Virginia----West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Echoes From The Hills by Fawn Valentine----was published in 2000 and contains a wealth of well-researched history about West Virginia quilts.

I have enjoyed browsing your website this afternoon. Both of my parents grew up in WVA and I have many happy memories of the beautiful mountains and valleys.

Best wishes for continued success in offering the public well documented stories and information.


Karen Alexander
Independent Quilt Historian

*(Our lineage, according to oral family history passed down for generations, said we also had Native American ancestors. However, one DNA study done on one blood sample of the current generation could find no trace of Native American ancestry. Family "oral" history is often skewed, i.e. "not factual.")

Still reading?

Here is another quote I stumbled upon in my eclectic research related to slavery and textiles of the South.


University of Nebraska - Lincoln DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings Textile Society of America

Susan Falls
Savannah College of Art and Design,

Jessica Smith

Fibers Professor at the SCAD,

"An enticing narrative linking African American (slave) material culture to African life became popular in the 1970’s, was reinforced in the 1980’s, and critically debated in the 1990’s until today. The idea that Africans brought weaving knowledge across the Atlantic was frequently reiterated on tours through slave quarters. To be fair, we cannot blame guides, or even in some cases staff, for this claim since it is well-documented lore in academic publications (Joyner, 1999; Vlach, 1991). 

But scholars have examined whether archaeological records support this connection. Samford, for instance, supports some of the religious/ritual artifact links, but shows that that this linkage is supported by comparisons to contemporary West African culture or to subjective European observations published at the time that are unchecked against archeological research, of which there has been a dearth (Samford, 1996). More recently, Stahl and Cruz analyzed archeological evidence about the Banda of Ghana and European travel dairies, finding that prior to the early 19th century, weaving was a highly specialized craft, production was limited and for the very elite. Only after increased contact with European traders in the 19th century did home production of cotton cloth become commonplace (Stahl, 2002). And if domestic weaving became widespread only after the 1808 Congressional ban on slave imports, it is improbable that many slaves came in with weaving experience."

In May 2019 the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Culture Heritage revisited its own original stance on what is called the "secret quilt code", offering a look at the difference between "belief" and "documentable facts".


Laurel Horton – AQSG Member -

Putting it in Perspective: The Symbolism of Underground Railroad quilts by Kris Driessen

Online source:

Just released and available to download - Shelly Zegart's groundbreaking article unpicks African American Quilt Scholarship, published in January 08-Selvedge , an international textile magazine. This article is a benchmark in understanding the problems with myth and methodology in this highly charged arena beginning in the late 1970's.

First published in Selvedge, an international textile magazine. London, England: Issue 21, Jan/Feb 2008.

Stash Stories

What to do with all that Fabric when a Quilter Passes!

I don’t know if ever in the history of quilting quilters have had such huge fabric stashes as we have today. It speaks of the great prosperity of our times since the spite of all the ups and downs in the economy during the past 40 years!  

The emergence of these stashes into the market place is only beginning to be felt in the past 5 years. I bet a lot of family members who have to try to unload this “stuff’ are feeling overwhelmed. And it’s not just fabric. It’s books and patterns and tools! 

I began to make note of the number of stories that began to appear on quilt discussion lists about the amount of fabric that was beginning to hit the “secondary” fabric market several years ago.  I have wondered what changes this huge amount of fabric hitting the secondary market might bring about. Would it make any difference in women’s spending habits about fabric? Somehow I doubt that it. I figure they will keep on buying “new” fabric anyway. But it is possible that as this “cheap” fabric (relative to the price of “new” fabric) becomes more widely available, women may simply just ADD EVEN MORE fabric to their stashes!  I think the presence of e-Bay and similar on-line sale sites is only going to accelerate this process.

A Business Opportunity for Someone Who Loves Fabric!

 Someone with a good business sense could start snapping this stuff up by the pound and create a huge on-line business out of it.  This “Secondary Market Fabric Mall” might one day be greatly appreciated by future quilters who want to “sew with vintage or antique” fabrics of our era just as we covet anything from the 1800s or early 1900s today! (Of course, it is hard for me to ever see the fabrics of the 1970s-2012 as fitting into those categories....and yet the 1970s already do!)

Help! What Do We D
When the Quilter in the Family Dies 
and Leaves All Her Fabric Behind?

As to how to put stashes to better use after a quilter has passed, here are some ideas that others have come up with too, I am sure:

Take the stash to her guild and let the members take what they want. What is not taken can then be given to GoodWill or some similar organization. Believe me, there are plenty of textile artists and quilters who regularly check such places for good bargains to extend their own fabric palate.  This is what our quilt group here on Lopez Island does. What is left after everyone has taken what they want goes to Neil's Mall.

Neil tacking up the new sign.

Being an island, we have some unique challenges to getting rid of "extra stuff", not to mention actual garbage. Anything that can possibly be re-used we give to what was loving dubbed "Neil's Mall" many years ago. (Click here to see what Sunset Magazine has to say about it.) This is a covered-on-three-sides-concrete-slab area at our Recycling Center. Volunteers keep it neat and organized. (Volunteers also get first shot at what is left there, too, so it is usually a popular place to volunteer!)

2) Since we started making Comfort Quilts last year to be distributed to families or children in need for whatever reason on our island --including having one at all times in the Sheriff’s car and other emergency vehicles as well as in each school classroom up to a certain age), our group really appreciates these kinds  of donations of fabric.

3) contact organizations like the Linus Project or even Mennonite groups or the Lutheran Relief Society that make quilts for disaster relief around the world. It would be satisfying to think of my stash made into quilts to warm someone else in another part of the world.

4) pass on patriotic themed fabric to Quilts of Valor or other similar support organizations for those in the military.

There really are a lot of organizations out there that gather fabric. I just don’t think there is one “clearing house” yet that makes it relatively simple for everyone to use. But here are a few ideas.