Friday, March 21, 2014

Did a Secret Quilt Code Help Slaves Escape to Freedom?

February and the Gnashing of Teeth 

Whew, February is over once again. Quilt historians across the country gnash their teeth and pull their hair out as all the quilt code stories start hitting the news every February, realizing that once again their efforts to shine some light on this "myth" seem to have come to naught. 

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

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

Every year during Black History Month the myth/legend/story of the so-called "quilt code of the Underground Railroad" raises its mighty head once again, much like the multi-headed hydra of ancient Greek mythology.

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.

Why did this quilt code legend just suddenly appear after 
the two children's books appeared?

Many feel the two children's books inspired 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.

After the 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 the story. This is the nature of oral history 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 know "for sure" where, when and through whom the first story emerged by word of mouth.

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.

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 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

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?

Several quilt historins very quickly proved that some blocks used in the "supposed secret quilt code" 
didn't even exist during the time of slavery. Read about the history of the blocks at "Betsy Ross Redux-
the Underground Railroad Quilt Code", researched and written by Leigh Fellner.

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.

Meeting Raymond Dobard

Just before the book was released and again shortly thereafter, I met and chatted with Raymond Dobard at two seperate events and also conversed with him by email and by phone.  (The fact that he was a friend of a friend helped me make the connection.)

I never could pin Dobard down about what this so-called quilt code "really meant".  But soon he was in great demand as journalists sent their requests for interviews and event planners sought him for speaking engagements. I taped a couple of the radio/TV interviews for my own research purposes.

The Aftermath -- Secret Quilt Code Now 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-gradersmade 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 well before the book "Hidden in Plan View" book came out in 1999. (Remember, this event took place in Ohio just before the book was released. Seems a little unusual the code wasn't mentioned 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 — yet. 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 academic about the lack of veracity in the so-called quilt code that I am aware of is Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi. (Dr. Mazloomi is also the founder of the Women of  Color Network and a quilter herself.) You can see what she has to say on the matter 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 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) Betsy Ross redux: the Underground Railroad "Quilt Code"
    researched and written by Leigh Fellner

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

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.)

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."


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.

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


A Re-enactor takes to blogging about the code to, challenging those re-enacting history to get it accurate.


  1. I bought the Sweet Clara book for my daughter. I thought that was such an excellent book for children. She really enjoyed it and is grown now. She's not interested in quilting or even sewing, but at least she finally likes cooking!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to stop by and read my blog. Maybe she will discover quilting later in life as many of us did! Or maybe her love of history will bring her to quilting as it did me.