The story of slave quilts begins with words passed from mouth to ear, from ear to heart, from heart to hand until, finally, the words are captured on paper.

Some call the story truth; some call it myth. Now, more than 150 years after the 13th Amendment was ratified, officially abolishing slavery in the United States, the story of hidden codes in quilts meant to aid the escape of enslaved men and women remains just that—a story. 

Just A Little Sampler

In 2003, Eleanor Burns published a book called Underground Railroad Sampler, part of her Quilt in a Day series found on television, online and in print across the world.

Burns, a western Pennsylvania native, learned how to sew as a youngster and eventually went on to revolutionize the quilting world by introducing faster techniques in cutting, piecing and stitching. Modern-day quilters agree that she is one of the most famous quilters in the world. When she stitches the pieces together, people tend to pay attention. Known as the “Queen of Quilting,” Burns has Quilt in a Day shops in downtown Paducah and San Marcos, California. 

In the Underground Railroad Sampler book, Burns and fellow quilter Sue Bouchard present a series of 15 quilt blocks that theoretically can be cut and pieced in a day to produce a complete quilt. Ten of the blocks demonstrate a type of code that could have been used by slaves traveling from bondage to freedom along the Underground Railroad. 

The Monkey Wrench quilt block indicated that slaves were to gather their tools in preparation for an escape. The Wagon Wheel quilt block meant it was time to travel. The Bear’s Paw quilt block reminded slaves that they were to follow the trails of wild animals. The Crossroads quilt block signified there was a town ahead, and the Log Cabin quilt block indicated the presence of a safe house—depending on the color of the center block, of course. A black center meant safe; a red center meant unsafe, and the slaves were to keep going. 

The sixth block was in a Shoofly pattern and was supposed to mean an agent of the Underground Railroad was nearby; a Bowtie quilt block instructed slaves that they were to discard their old slave attire and dress as freedmen and women. The direction of the triangles on a Flying Geese quilt block indicated the right direction of travel, while the Drunkard’s Path quilt block gave slaves yet another reminder: to escape in an erratic pattern so as to elude the slave hunters. Finally, the North Star quilt block was a constant reminder that north meant Canada, and Canada meant freedom. 

The resulting quilt tells, in its own way, a part of the story of the Underground Railroad.  

Burns admits she taught the story for years and became particularly interested in designing a specific Underground Railroad quilt after reading Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, a book by historian Jacqueline Tobin and art history professor Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.

This book takes the reader on a journey to meet South Carolinian Ozella McDaniel Williams, who told Tobin a story passed on from generation to generation about secret codes hidden in quilts that helped Ozella’s ancestors and others escape from slavery to freedom.  

These two books are not the only published accounts of codes in quilts. Gladys-Marie Fry published Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South in 1990, with a second edition released in 2002. Fry mentions the codes in quilts as fact, and even children’s fiction has picked up on the idea that slaves used quilt codes to attain freedom. Deborah Hopkinson wrote Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, published in 1993, and Jacqueline Woodson published Show Way in 2005. 

In addition, teachers around the nation have taught students about the Underground Railroad using these children’s picture books and the idea that codes in quilts helped the slaves to escape. 

Through the years, this story has done what stories do: It has traveled. But is the story true? 

Dr. J. Blaine Hudson was very adamant about the fact that there was no documentation, no extant quilts. There was nothing to support the really cool story,” explains Tressa Brown, the African American Heritage Commission coordinator with the Kentucky Heritage Council, referring to the late University of Louisville educator.

Judy Schwender, the curator of collections and the registrar at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, agrees with Brown that the story that secret codes or messages were stitched into quilts is absolutely myth. “When subjected to the scrutiny of serious historical methodology, the theory of quilts used as signals on the Underground Railroad is not validated,” Schwender says. 

Schwender has devoted a good portion of her time to debunking the story. In September, she presented “Were Quilts Really Used as Signals on the Underground Railroad?” at the 2016 Ohio River National Freedom Corridor Underground Railroad Conference in Cincinnati.

“This part of American history deserves respect and truth,” Schwender says. “Quilt historians feel that it would be better to present this wonderful history as a starting point for quilts children can create about what the Underground Railroad means.” 

If the story in “this wonderful history” is to be the starting point from which we learn what has gone on before, what is the truth? 

Stitches of Truth

In 1526, the first Africans set foot on what would come to be known as South Carolina. A group of Africans believed to be indentured servants were recorded at Jamestown in Virginia in 1619. Within 50 years, established colonies legalized slavery, and laws concerning the treatment of slaves as chattel, or property, were passed, written and obeyed. 

When explorers first walked the wild and unexplored wilderness of what would later be called Kentucky in 1751, they were accompanied by an African servant, and when Daniel Boone established a settlement at Fort Boonesborough in 1775, he brought with him a “group of African laborers.”

As the population spread from east to west and from north to south, so did slave labor. As slavery grew, so did opposition to it. In turn, as opposition to slavery grew, so did the number of laws protecting slavery.  

The invention of the cotton gin in 1792 and the passage by the U.S. Congress of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which protected the rights of slave owners to retrieve their runaway slaves even from free states, exacerbated the lucrative nature of the slave trade. 

While Kentucky was not a cotton-growing state, it did become known as a slave-growing state. Even though the importation of slaves was declared illegal in Kentucky in 1833, the business of slavery was so alluring that it continued decades later. Kentucky’s physical position on the Ohio River as well as its stance as a slave-holding state made Kentucky prime land upon which to lay the invisible tracks of the Underground Railroad. 

Scholars estimate that the Underground Railroad, a series of escape routes for those who desired freedom from slavery, aided thousands of escaping slaves on their journey north to freedom. While the first documented escape of a slave was in the 1600s in Virginia, the system known as the Underground Railroad has been identified by the National Park Service as lasting from 1830 to 1865.

The Kentucky Heritage Council’s Brown recalls speaking to the late Dr. Hudson about the Underground Railroad. “He said it was really hard to research some sites, and there was a reason for no documentation: You didn’t want to get nailed with it. People weren’t talking to one another; people weren’t trusting one another. Anyone could turn you in,” Brown explains. “He truly believed that most of the escapes were by the individuals getting there. It wasn’t a coordinated project by an organization, and the term Underground Railroad gives you a false sense of organization. The ‘underground’ part of it was absolutely true, but to make it sound like it was a concerted, overarching plan wasn’t necessarily the way it worked, especially early on.” 

Slave narratives, a genre that emerged in the late 1800s, gave testimony to the horrors of slavery, as well as to the efforts of men and women of color who longed to be free. 

The Underground Railroad, A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom was written by William Still and published in 1872. Still was considered one of the prominent figures on the Underground Railroad, having helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom. The son of former slaves, Still was a story collector. 

Through the use of personal narrative, the addition of supporting period newspaper articles and various correspondences, Still recorded stories of African-American men and women who escaped slavery by whatever means they could. Some slaves were escaping the pain and fear of being sold at the next convenient auction block. Some were escaping beatings, lack of proper clothing or food, and imprisonment. Some were escaping because they couldn’t stand the thought of being owned by someone else. Without the gruesome detail characteristic of some slave narratives, Still wrote of fugitives who hid out in caves for months to elude capture, boxed themselves into crates and were shipped north, risked death, and even were willing to kill their children in the face of recapture because there was more freedom in death than in life.   

While the ending of these stories culminated in Canadian freedom, life in free Northern states, recapture or death, some of them—in large ways and small—touched the earth of this very Commonwealth. 

Yet, these stories aren’t typically the ones Kentuckians hear about. 

“Because of Kentucky’s position, so many of the slave rounds came through Kentucky, but it was a secret. You didn’t talk about how you got here because you wanted your family to be able to follow you,” Brown explains. “When teachers do Black History Month, they have available to them the national stories. They don’t look at the local stories, which are powerful.” 

At the Kentucky Heritage Council, Brown has worked to provide lesson plans and information to teachers across the state outlining the influence and the valid, supported stories of not only African Americans, but also Native Americans in Kentucky. 

Brown encourages all Kentuckians to become historians, to visit their libraries and read about the local stories, and to listen to the oral histories of others. In reading and listening, citizens might never find out whether slave quilt codes are myth or reality, but they might find something else more important. 

“You have to find those resources within the community and sit around and talk,” Brown says. “Human beings. We need to understand that’s who we are, and if we can’t understand who’s standing next to us, if we can’t understand the history between us, then I don’t know where we go. We. Not who I am and not who you are, but who we are. This is collective history, and I think that’s our most important thing.” 

Peace by Piece 

Crystal Marshall moves through the spacious, well-lit rooms of the historical Bierbower House in Maysville. When she stands at the windows fronting West Fourth Street, she can see the Ohio River.

The Bierbower House was owned by Jonathan Ayers and Lucetta Carey Bierbower, carriage makers in Maysville around the same time that scholars date the beginning of the Underground Railroad. As the story goes, the Bierbowers ran a safe house. That safe house is now home to the National Underground Railroad Museum.

Inside, in the cellar portion of the home, is a stone-walled room. The room might be seen as just part of an old house, except for one small detail: It has a story. This story came from the late Christine Maher, who used to visit the Bierbower women, and who learned of the Bierbowers lifting the floorboards of the servants’ rooms and hiding slaves until it was safe for them to cross the river.

“Checking facts and checking sources and looking really closely are the challenges to understand this movement. As time goes by, less and less can be found because the people are gone,” Marshall says. She explains that Christine was a woman of good reputation in the town, a trustworthy secondary source that makes the story about the primary source believable.

Marshall and her family, the current caretakers of the museum, conduct field research, read extensively, listen to stories and follow leads that might shed more light on Kentuckians’ past. 

She leads groups from one room to another, shows them the shackles and the photos, and shares the undisputed history and documented facts. She says she hopes visitors leave with two things: the value of community and sitting and listening to neighbors; and the answer to the question: “If you had space, would you hide somebody?”   

“What we have to understand about interpreting movements, how they happen is through people who have to apply some sort of moral standard. If you are running around trying to understand without a moral compass, you aren’t historically factual in any way. A quilt and a sign and whatever does not start a movement,” Marshall says. “What starts a movement is people who are morally moved to do something with something inside them that says, ‘This is wrong.’ Until we get more people to go find out what our brothers and sisters are doing and what they are suffering from, we are never going to get anywhere in this world.” 

When Kentuckians stop and listen, an opportunity might arise to stitch together the pieces of individual lives that just might mean a better, warmer cover of understanding—a peace by all the little pieces.