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Underground Railroad Quilts

August 1, 2010

A friend of mine on Facebook posed the question, “Is it accurate that “crazy quilts” were maps for the Underground Railroad?”

That is a very interesting- to me fascinating- question. Unfortunately, there is no absolute answer. In asking the question you open a quite a controversy.

Supporters claim that quilts were hung out on clothes lines, fence lines or window sills. To the casual passerby these were simply bedding airing in the sunshine. To the escaping slaves traveling the Underground Railroad the quilt patterns in the quilts were signals and codes telling the slaves needed information such as, “This is a safe house,” “search party in the area,” “change your clothes,” “food,” and “travel this direction.” These stories and codes were handed down verbally, parents to children, under strict secrecy because their freedom, indeed their very survival, depended on the secrecy.

Opponents claim the story has been fabricated by a few entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the explosion of interest in African-American quilts in the 1980’s. Many of the quilt patterns claimed to be used in the Underground Railroad Quilts have not been documented as being used before the 20th Century. There is no written evidence from the Civil War era to support the claims that quilts were used in this way. And quilt codes are not mentioned in the 19th century slave narratives or 1930s oral testimonies of former slaves.

I doubt that we will ever have an absolute answer. Myself, I am riding the fence. I think that it may have been done but not on a widespread basis. If it had been done on a widespread basis it seems to me that someone somewhere would have written about it. Women throughout the years have always written extensively about their quilts in their diaries. Maybe some day just such a diary will be found to support the claims. I would like that very much as it does make for a very romantic story.

Here are links to sites from which I gleaned information and do provide additional information if you are interested:

http://www.osblackhistory.com/quilts.php

http://www.ugrrquilt.hartcottagequilts.com/#intro

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/02/0205_040205_slavequilts.html

http://www.quilthistory.com/ugrrquilts.htm

http://www.womenfolk.com/quilting_history/abolitionist.htmv

http://www.barbarabrackman.com/Sermon.pdf

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