Underground Railroad Quilts?

In recent years, one of the most powerful quilt myths to emerge has centered on the role quilts may have played in the Underground Railroad. Centered on an empowering account of enslaved African Americans who ingeniously stitched codes into quilts to signal those seeking freedom in the North toward safe haven, this gratifying story has stirred controversy within the world of quilt scholarship.

The Quilt Code is grounded in an oral tradition, passed down in at least one family. Yet no historians have identified any additional evidence to help substantiate the use of the code. The use of other signals, such as whistles, songs, and lanterns, is more widely documented in additional oral and historical accounts. As Barbara Brackman has noted, individuals remembered using quilts in escapes, but they were used to warm fugitives or protect them from view.

Because no additional historical evidence supports the use of quilts as a code for runaway slaves heading north, quilt historians consider it a folk story from an individual family. Despite this, educators, journalists, public history organizations, and others have embraced it as truth, because it’s the kind of story members of the public like to believe. It stars creative quiltmakers and courageous enslaved individuals, and results in freedom from this brutal institution. Yet it presents an overly simplified view of the complexities of the Underground Railroad and slavery that is not grounded in historical evidence.