(Updated August 7, 2019)
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.
written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard,
was first published in February 1999.
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.
in human culture, right?
|Click to read about author here.|
What proceeded the children's books?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
1999 Book Reviews About the Dobard/Tobin Book
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.
In fact the author, Jacqueline Tobin,
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.
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.
Above: Giles R. Wright (1935-2009), former director of the Afro-American History Program, New Jersey Historical Commission, Trenton
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.
"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:
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.
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
|Why Do Quilts Matter?|
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.
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!
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. http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2009/02/giles_r_wright_jr_renowned_sch.html
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 http://www.whyquiltsmatter.org/welcome/.
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.
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.")
Here is another quote I stumbled upon in my eclectic research related to slavery and textiles of the South.
SOURCE OF QUOTE:
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". https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/underground-railroad-quilt-codes
OTHER GREAT ON-LINE RESOURCES
Online source: http://www.shellyquilts.com/resources/articles/Myth_and_Methodology.php