Slave Codes on Quilts?
With Black History Month around the corner, it’s a good time to send out a warning about a colorful, comforting, and yet pernicious myth concerning the Underground Railroad. The story goes that households involved in the Underground Railroad hung quilts outside with geometric patterns designed to communicate information to escaping slaves. Despite an absence of primary-source evidence to support this myth (no references in escaped slave narratives, for instance), several North Carolina cultural heritage institutions have embraced and perpetuated the story. Click here for one online example.
Quilt historian Leigh Fellner has thoroughly researched and debunked the myth of the quilt slave code. She has traced the tale to one family in South Carolina selling quilts to tourists in the 1990s and a less-than-careful writer who published a book on it thereafter. Several academic historians support Fellner’s myth-busting account. See, for instance, this discussion thread on the history network. The New York Times has also worked to get the word out, and Scholastic has a website dedicated to educate classroom teachers about the many myths surrounding the Underground Railroad.
If a story engages audiences about the past, does it matter that it’s not exactly accurate? Public historians grapple with this topic regularly and often have to steer tour guides away from the good stories they develop by responding to audience reactions over time. Ghost tours are a typical example of this process.
North Carolina has several authentic Underground Railroad stories to take pride in, as well as a fascinating heritage of quilts and other textiles. The resources of our state’s historic sites and museums can help educators share these lessons. Harriet Jacobs’ brave endurance, hiding out in Edenton for seven years before her escape, and the false-bottom wagon Quakers used to help transport escaped slaves, now at Mendenhall Plantation, are two prominent Underground Railroad successes.
The North Carolina Museum of History’s collection includes two quilts made by women who were previously enslaved. Mary Barnes, of Wilson, NC created the “Martha’s Choice” patterned quilt sometime between the years 1875 to before her death in 1902. Her family used the piece and passed it down until donating it to NCMOH in 1978. Another quilt with a log cabin pattern dates to 1907. The maker, Patience White, gave the piece to the donor’s mother as a token of appreciation for teaching her to read.
True stories are often more wonderful than fiction. We just have to spend more time teasing them out of verifiable evidence. North Carolina has a great deal of cultural heritage material to mine for Black History Month lessons and programs. Let’s honor those who lived through past trials and tribulations by keeping it real.
Posted on January 21, 2014, in historic houses, historic sites, museums, public programs and tagged Harriet Jacobs, Historic Carson House, Historic Edenton, Leigh Fellner, Mary Barnes, Mendenhall Plantation, myth-busting, North Carolina Museum of History, Patience White, Public history, Underground Railroad. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.