Underground Railroad Quilt ‘Code Blocks’ Live On, Even For 21st Century Quiltmakers


Melanie Dantzler, president of the African American Quilt Circle of Durham, N.C. and past vice president Teena Crawshaw, stand in front of the quilt “Recalling Slavery Days” at QuiltCon 2024.

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Melanie Dantzler, president of the African American Quilt Circle of Durham, N.C. and past vice president Teena Crawshaw, stand in front of the quilt “Recalling Slavery Days” at QuiltCon 2024.

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As a hobby, quilting is often about remembering loved ones. Today almost a million Americans make some kind of quilt, including replica Revolutionary War quilts, and, increasingly Underground Railroad Quilts. One of those was on display at QuiltCon in Raleigh, N.C. The annual conference is held by the Modern Quilt Guild and this year drew 12,000 visitors.

Quilter Cyntia Kelly’s “Recalling Slavery Days” was on display at the booth run by the African American Quilt Circle of Durham. “A lot of these blocks were from the Underground Railroad quilt, and she just put her own colors and her own spin on the blocks,” explained Quilt Circle President Melanie Dantzler.

Some blocks have been in use for centuries. Dantzler pointed out a couple of traditional blocks incorporated into this quilt, including Jacob’s Ladder and Flying Geese.

The Underground Railroad quilt is a story about a set of quilt blocks that could have helped enslaved people escape during slavery. The idea took off 25 years ago with the book, “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad,” by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, a journalist and art historian duo.

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Sandra Daniel stands before an Underground Railroad Quilt Code quilt hanging in her store, Country Barn Quilt Co.

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Sandra Daniel stands before an Underground Railroad Quilt Code quilt hanging in her store, Country Barn Quilt Co.

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Sandra Daniel, an African American quilter and the owner of Country Barn Quilt Company in Augusta, Ga., is a huge fan. “I think it’s a great read. I kinda read it in one night,” she said.

For the book Tobin interviewed Ozella Williams, a South Carolina quilter who descended from enslaved people. Williams recalled an oral history shared by her grandmother that explained enslaved people made quilt blocks with coded meanings to help guide escapees to freedom.

“And those blocks actually gave slaves directions on how and when to leave and which route to take. It started out with the monkey wrench block,” Daniel explained.

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The monkey wrench quilt block is said to be the first block to appear, indicating enslaved people should get ready to escape.

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The monkey wrench quilt block is said to be the first block to appear, indicating enslaved people should get ready to escape.

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The monkey wrench is a symbol for a freed African American blacksmith who could travel between plantations, according to the book. When he gave word that the time was right for people to attempt escape, a quilt with the monkey wrench block would be hung outside. It communicated that would-be escapees should gather supplies and get ready. When the next block, a wagon wheel, appeared, enslaved people would know that safe transportation was on its way. The book explains as many as 12 quilts were made for the route.

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The wagon wheel quilt block indicated that a safe wagon or cart was on its way.

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The wagon wheel quilt block indicated that a safe wagon or cart was on its way.

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Published in 1999, the book became popular and controversial early on. Tobin and Dobard’s book told the story of one woman’s unrecorded narrative and added other information about quilts of that era and the lives of the enslaved. Museums in Missouri, Florida, and Michigan have held shows featuring “authentic” quilt code quilts. Libraries in California, Louisiana and Georgia have held lectures and displays about the quilt’s use. There are even math and history lesson plans using the quilt codes. But there’s a tear in the narrative.

“There is no evidence of it at all,” according to Tracy Vaughn-Manley, a Black Studies Professor at Northwestern University. She studies Black quilting. She said there’s evidence that enslaved people made utilitarian quilts from old clothing and scraps of fabric given to them by their enslavers. “Based on my research, and the research of highly regarded slave historians, There has been no evidence: No letters, no notes, nothing that would signify that quilts were used as codes.”

In fact, the history of quilts and slavery conditions contradict this code story. That’s according to quilt historian Laurel Horton. But she’s also a folklorist. As a narrative, she recognizes the cultural significance of the codes. “It’s appealing to Black people because it gives them the idea of agency, that your ancestors had some way of dealing with their situation,” she said. It’s the story of the underdog, the hero’s narrative. She said it’s appealing to white people, too. “Because if Black people could find ways to escape right out under the noses of their enslavers then [slavery] couldn’t have been all that bad.”

Horton says folk narratives like this are tools for meaning, and the quilt code does just that for quilters like quilt store owner Sandra Daniel. “We all have something we try to hold onto. A lot of the history of African Americans has been erased. What else can you tell me? You can’t tell me my history because it was taken from me,” she said.

Daniel and other quilters know the story may not entirely match reality. But some of the code blocks did appear in quilts made in the 1850s, before slavery’s end. They believe that the quilt block narrative demonstrates the creativity and fortitude of their ancestors.



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