Underground Railroad is an important part of history. I have always been fascinated by the story of the Underground Railroad Quilt codes but have never taken the time to find out exactly what the codes really were and how they were able to communicate with them. I know there is still some controversy among historians about this theory. Some say that it is not supported by any documentary evidence like slave memoirs or recorded history of interviews with escaped slaves but there is something so believable in this theory. It is supposedly based on only one person's history as written in the book, Hidden in Plain View.
The theory is that in the Southern states before and during the American Civil War when the slaves were trying to escape the bonds of captivity that the Underground Railroad quilt codes were started. Few slaves were able to read or write and at the time it was illegal to teach them, so that is when the codes started to play a part in their quest for freedom. The codes were created by both Blacks who were free or former slaves and whites who didn't believe in slavery and wanted to aid those trying to escape through the Underground Railroad. A lot of our quilt patterns have their roots in the African traditions. The slaves brought them over to our country when they were captured and forced to leave their homelands. It wouldn't surprise me if these patterns, designs or symbols would be a way to communicate with each other that their owners could not interpret. I found it interesting that in Africa, men were the ones to make the textiles and women didn't really start this until they came to North America. It only makes sense, because the men were put to work out in the fields and women were to take care of the households.
If you think about it, quilts being slung over a fence or hanging on a windowsill would be a perfect way to aid in the Underground Railroad cause. At the time it was a common way to air quilts out and most of the plantation owners or overseers would not pay any attention to them or think anything about seeing them there making it a perfect way to communicate.
Here are a few of the common quilt block designs used in the Underground Railroad quilts and what they were supposed to mean to the runaway slaves.
Tumbling Blocks: This symbol was used to let the slaves know that a conductor or runaway slave hunter was in the area and it was time to move again.
Bear's Paw: This symbol let them know to follow a mountain trail and then to follow an actual bear's trail which would lead them to water and food.
Shoofly: A symbol that would identify a person who knew the codes and would help and guide them.
Drunkard's Path: This was a warning signal to remind slaves that slave hunters were in the area and to take a zigzag route or even travel south for a bit. Slaves heading south were not suspected of trying to escape.
Log Cabin: This is a symbol that meant it was time to seek shelter and that this person was safe to speak with. It was like a safe house along the journey.
In reading about the Underground Railroad quilt codes, I am no closer to knowing for sure if this is fact or fiction, but I do know that whenever I use one of these quilt patterns, it makes me think about this time in our history that brought sadness and heartache to so many people. It helps me to really appreciate the history of our quilt designs and gives me the desire to want to learn more.Underground Railroad Quilt Block Codes