|The Secret Quilt Code: The Underground Railroad and Quilt Blocks
Patricia L. Cummings
The questionable story of the secret quilt code of the Underground Railroad has taken wings and continues to be taught as
fact in schools, on government-connected websites, in the media, and at public programs by presenters who, sometimes
for a little pocket change, would like the public to think that the faux information they are spewing forth is the Gospel
Truth. If we continue to repeat a falsehood often enough, does that make it true? Absolutely not!
Pernicious and Persistent
Like the pernicious and persistent infectious diseases of the past which did not yet have a cure, the secret quilt code
continues to perpetuate itself like bacteria in a petri dish. The trend has only become worse ever since 1999, when the book
that started this whole mess was published. The book Hidden in Plain View is "speculative," according to one of its
authors. Yet, quilters embraced the notion of quilt blocks and/or quilts being used on the Underground Railroad to convey
Data Interpretation Questioned
Serious quilt scholars and historians and others in academia, as well as quilt guild members, have not only questioned the
validity of the details of the secret quilt code, they have in fact discounted them as plausible, based on reason, facts, and
knowledge of not only historical quilting, but the actual events surrounding slave escapes during the time of the
Why is the Code Perpetuated in the Media?
The answer is simple. The media loves a "good story," and the secret quilt code makes "good" copy. Of course, Americans
who have not heard of this intrigue before are completely fascinated and want to embrace this story as a way to "honor"
their fellow Black Americans, especially during the month of February, Black History Month.
I am happy to live in New Hampshire, the Granite State. Our former statesman, Daniel Webster, once said, "There is
nothing more powerful than the truth." At the New Hampshire Historical Society, in January 2007, a program was
presented about a real person, Harriet E. Wilson, (1825-1900), a mulatto woman who lived in Milford, New Hampshire.
Fern Cunningham designed a statue dedicated to African-American, Harriet E. Wilson,, which stands in Bicentennial Park in
Milford, NH. No known photo image of Ms. Wilson exists so the statue is an artist's rendering of a theme.
The Book, Our Nig
Wilson's book, Our Nig, is the first novel written by an African-American, that was published in the United States. She has
been called her the "Mother" of the African-American novel.
One way to honor Black Americans is to acknowledge their true accomplishments and respect the fact that they achieved th
em, sometimes in spite of many personal challenges, experiences or tribulations. New Hampshire has the right idea.
The Art of Being Fanciful and Creating Stories (Myths)
Of course, we cannot blame the writers of the book Hidden in Plain View entirely for creating false history that is now pass
ed along as fact. After all, the book is based on the oral testimony of Ozella McDaniel Williams, a quilt vendor who is
responsible for having shared her fanciful "secret quilt code" with Jacqueline Tobin, co-author of the book, who in turn
passed along the information to Raymond Dobard, Jr., Ph.D., an Art Historian and Professor.
The now deceased Ozella McDaniel Williams was nobody's dummy. She was a graduate of Howard University with a
degree in law. Little did she know what her entertaining "code" would unleash, in terms of a broader public deception.
Some people want to interpret oral testimony as indisputable evidence. Looking to how "stories" have changed and have
been embellished or otherwise have strayed from the facts, even in my own family, makes me aware that oral stories can
and will change over time.
Blue in the Face
Since 2002, I have written newspaper and magazine articles about the reasons why the secret quilt code is simply not accept
able as history. The difficulty in combating a new myth lies in the fact that children's book writers, the media, the governme
nt, and individual presenters have been centered on disseminating information that is not factual or credible.
Like the blackflies that crawl up one's nose and into one's ears and bite like the dickens in the spring, this subject keeps re-e
merging in a big way.
Every January and February, (the month to honor Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.,; and Black History Month), the academics
and historians who are non-believers of "the code," will get on their high horses and try to set the record straight yet again,
but with seemingly little effect. Nonetheless, we keep trying to correct the record because we care. Meanwhile, the "secret
quilt code" is being forced on children to memorize in school and develop construction paper quilt blocks of the same
configurations as named in the fictitious "code."
Like people with religious zeal, those who "believe" in the secret quilt code, will continue to do so. They are fervent. Just do
not ask them WHY they believe, or WHY they reject reason, because they will not be able to tell you. After all, faith is not
based on facts, but on blind belief.
Having studied quilt history now for a very long time, it is hard for me to realize that a lot of people, in the general public,
know so little about the subject of quilts. Furthermore, some folks have very closed minds when it comes to wanting to
hang on to what they think they know.
On a recent television broadcast, an all-white, whole cloth quilt that had won a contest was shown. So what did one of the
media people say? One person wondered where the color was...where were the patches...weren't quilts supposed to have
color and patches? Of course, in a 30 second time slot or so, there is simply no time to describe the long and complex
history of quilts or the sheer variety of historical quilts.
The whole scene on television was frustrating to watch, aggravated only by the announcer grabbing the quilt, not once, but
twice, and flipping it back on its display hanger to reveal two people standing behind it, presumably there to catch the quilt
should the stand blow over in the wind. (The scene was shot outside.)
Education Is Sorely Needed
To those of us who love quilts and their history, it seems that more education is needed for the general public. People
remain dismally unaware of so many aspects of quilts, their history, and their proper care. Of course, for those who buy a
"quilted comforter" at a department store for $19.95, $29.95, or $49.95, or even $99.95, quilts are just some old thing to be
tossed around and to lay on, perhaps even to place under the car when changing the oil. In other words, quilts seem to be
utilitarian objects that are not very important.
The Secret Quilt Code Will Never Go Away
The secret quilt code is filling a need for stories in our society, and it has become totally ingrained in our culture in the short
time it has been perpetuated. My "belief" is that it will not ever go away. There is actually no harm in it, when the fictitious
account is presented for what it is: an amusing and entertaining thought, nothing more...something that would have been
enchanting had it actually happened.
Quilt historians and Underground Railroad historians get upset when fiction is imparted as fact. There is a difference
between the two words. The definitions of "fiction" and "fact" should be the first words that students in any social studies
class look for in the dictionary.
Extremely Thrilled With New Discoveries
The work of the Harriet E. Wilson Project, which has brought her life and accomplishments to the forefront, is right on
track with the kind of Black scholarship that should be happening more often.
An exciting book published by Kyra Hicks is called Martha Ann's Quilt for Queen Victoria, another little known, yet true
story. Anyone who loves history, particularly Black history, will enjoy the book.
There is more joy to be found in imparting real historical accounts rather than fiction that we wish could have happened...bu
t did not. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the idea that quilts or quilt blocks were used to guide slaves to freedo
m on the so-called Underground Railroad which was not a railroad for trains but rather an underground or secret network
of safe houses to harbor slaves. My previously-written articles, which are now a matter of public record, having been
published, reveal all of the reasons why the secret quilt code is implausible. To fully appreciate the contributions of Blacks
in America, we will have to look elsewhere.
2016. Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. All Rights Reserved. This updated article was originally published in 2007
on this website.