Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Yet Another Look At UGRR's 'Quilt Code'

In case, you're wondering, that stands for the "quilt code" that Jacqueline Tobin's book, Hidden in Plain View, promoted -- that slaves stitched motifs and designs in quilts that specifically pointed out escape routes via the Underground Railroad.

     A wonderful story. I wish it were true.

Unfortunately, far too many societies and groups (including the National Park Service) were quick to leap onto the idea, without fact-checking. Another group, the Powers That Be in Nashville, TN, approved a public art project (proposed by an Iowa artist) that would have slapped 'quilt code' motifs down the side of a public bridge. Fortunately, quilt historians found out in time to protest -- now the bridge will just have traditional quilt motifs, without the UGRR connection.

A similar problem happened in New York City, with the planned installation of a statue of Frederick Douglass -- displayed on a foundation of 'quilt code' motifs. (The motifs have been scrapped, but Douglass's statue has been finished and is on display.)

Tobin and her colleague, Raymond Dobard, protest that the book was based on one family's recollections. (Actually, one elderly lady's - who may or may not have made up the story in order to sell more quilts. That lady died before the book even came out.) If it were true for one family, then wouldn't it technically be true -- period?? (Tobin said something similar to me once, when I sat next to her at a book signing.)
     The struggle that historians have with the idea can be explained in one word: EVIDENCE. There are no extant quilts that support the theory. (On the other hand, they would have just looked like sampler quilts, with nothing to suggest that they meant anything.) Although I have seen at least two oral accounts that may be referring to 'quilts in code,' the allusions are sparse and vague. Nowhere is there a strong, provable piece of evidence that "quilt codes" were actually used. (Read Barbara Brackman's take on the subject here -- thanks, Barbara, for mentioning this.)
     Tobin and Dobard have not helped their case with the illustrations chosen for Hidden in Plain View: several of the motifs chosen (including the Sailboat and Dresden Plate) weren't even made during the Civil War period! (At least not one quilt, so far, has surfaced with those patterns from that time period, even though they were designated as important symbols, according to the book. When I mentioned this to Jacqueline, she said, "Oh, I didn't choose those -- my editor did." Huh?)

One thing gives me pause -- the testimony of Cuesta Benberry. She was an thoughtful, educated historian who felt there was something to the "quilt codes" theory.  According to Cuesta, Hidden in Plain View actually had a great deal more evidence that couldn't be fit into the book, due to space. She also said to me once, "If it's true for one family, wouldn't it be considered true?"

    My respect for Cuesta, now gone, doesn't let me dismiss this fascinating theory -- but I'd take any 'stories' about it with more than a grain of salt.


Thomas Crenshaw said...

The book contradicts it's self way too much.
Page 69, one paragraph says there are 9 patters but lists 10.
Page 81, tumbling blocks are the 10th pattern but page 22 doesn't list them.
Page 18, Dobard is a art history professor, renowed quilter, and a known expert on African American quilts as they pertain to UGRR. Page 18, he stated he never heard of Ozella's story.
Page 186, the book states that Harriet Tubman lead over 300 skaves. She lead 13 missions and 70 slaves.
Now I could go on and on but I think I made my point. I don't know if it is real but it sure is an enteresring tale and a beautiful quilt.

Cindy Brick said...

Thanks for writing, Thomas -- you're making some good points. What really frustrates me about the UGRR Quilt Code Affair is its longevity -- even with historians and writers mentioning the problems with the theory, guvment and other public entities are quick to leap on the idea...because it is so picturesque and intriguing! (I suspect that guilt for what your ancestors did is also playing a stronger part here than most people are willing to admit.)
Slaves' cleverness and ingenuity are well-documented...but I suspect we'll never know for sure if that Civil War Sampler holds the key to the UGRR Quilt Code -- or not.
Thanks for writing.

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