Unravelling the Myth of Quilts and the Underground Railroad

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Raymond Dobard / From the book, "Hidden in Plain View""

A quilt with an "Evening Star" pattern, believed by some to be a secret code used by slaves to guide them along the Underground Railroad.

When Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard explored in their book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Random House) a family legend that said messages encoded in quilts helped slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad, they had no idea that their hypothesis would inspire rancor from scholars who declared it false. They also couldn't have predicted how their story, published less than 10 years ago, would capture the popular imagination — being treated as fact on The Oprah Winfrey Show, in museum exhibits, in children's textbooks and on the Web, and spawning an industry of quilt code books and patterns.

"Hidden in Plain View is the story of one woman's family," explains Tobin, a journalist and teacher, who said she first heard about the codes when she bought a quilt from a woman named Ozella McDaniel Williams at a Charleston, S.C., market in 1994. Williams told Tobin that for generations women in her family had been taught an oral history that stated that quilt patterns — like log cabins, monkey wrenches and wagon wheels — also served as directions that helped slaves plan their escapes. Since she lacked historical data to back up Williams' claim, Tobin enlisted her friend Raymond Dobard, a quilter and art history professor affiliated with Howard University, to help research and write the book, which is now in its sixth printing and has sold over 200,000 copies. "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."

Relying on the oral history of one family, without corroboration from other sources. is what offends historians like Giles Wright, an Underground Railroad expert who works for the New Jersey Historical Commission. "The Underground Railroad is so rife with distortions and misinformation, and this is just one more instance when someone comes across folklore and assumes it's true," he says.

Historians like Wright are trying to set the record straight every chance they get. They present papers for publication and at conferences. They fill pages and pages of websites debunking what they believe to be a myth akin to George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. They engage in heated debates on Underground Railroad and quilt studies e-mail lists. And a few months ago Barbara Brackman, a renowned quilt historian, even published her own book called Facts and Fabrications; Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery (C&T Publishing) to present what she considers to be an accurate assessment of slavery, quilts and the Underground Railroad.

Nevertheless, the story continues to be told in places like the Plymouth Historical Museum in Plymouth, Mich., where an exhibition entitled "Quilts of the Underground Railroad" is up for the fifth year in a row. Over 6,000 school children have seen the exhibit, which presents the thesis of a quilt code. There are also smaller lectures taking place at local libraries, churches and quilt guilds all over the country. The story has also ended up in lesson plans and textbooks (TIME For Kids even published an article about Hidden in Plain View in a middle school art book published by McGraw Hill in 2005). Recently the issue got national attention when plans in New York City to include a quilt element in a Central Park Memorial statue of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a famous abolitionist, raised the ire of historians, who asked the city reconsider using quilts in the design.

But women like Anna Lopez, the education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum, see no reason why the story of quilt codes can't be fact. "What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?"

Roland Freeman, a civil rights activist and photographer who has been documenting African American quilters for nearly 30 years, has another take on why the story is so popular. "Hidden in Plain View is how we got over those white folks. Right under the nose of white folk we're sending signs and symbols and they didn't know it. While I think it's so ridiculous, African Americans are starved for those kind of stories in our culture and we're willing to accept it because it's what we want to hear."

Folklorist and quilt historian Laurel Horton, who has lectured and published papers about the quilt code, says she's given up on trying to debunk the myth. Instead, she says she's more interested on focusing on why the story continues to persist. "This whole issue made me realize it's not a matter of one group having the truth and another not. It's matter of two different sets of beliefs. It's made me realize that belief doesn't have a lot to do with factual representation. People feel in their gut that it's true so no one can convince them in their head that it's otherwise."