By Emily J. Weitz
It’s difficult to fathom the ingenuity it took people to break free from the shackles of slavery. But during the time of slavery in America, thousands and thousands of individuals refused to remain in bondage and risked everything to make the long journey north to a life of freedom. The tactics they employed to accomplish this seemingly impossible task had to be creative and unassuming. And it’s hard to piece together how exactly they did it, because they obviously weren’t taking recorded notes on the ways in which they were going to escape their oppressive conditions. But slaves were from Africa, a place steeped in the oral tradition. And according to some accounts of descendants of slaves, these oral traditions tell an amazing story of how slaves quilted their way to freedom.
There’s debate in the community of historians about whether or not quilts were used as devices in the escape process. But in “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad”, authors Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard relate the oral testimony of Ozella McDaniel, a descendant of slaves. According to McDaniel, slaves used to stitch directions and other messages into quilts and then hang them up out to “dry” on the laundry line. When others were planning their escape, they used these quilts as guides. One symbol was The North Star, which directed slaves north. Another was called Drunkard’s Pass, which told them to zigzag their way so that they wouldn’t be suspected. The Bow Tie, in which two triangles were stitched with the tops facing one another, meant that they should change their clothes to conceal themselves as members of a higher class. And the Log Cabin, which is a popular quilting pattern throughout history, indicated a safe house, a place where slaves should take shelter.
“Sometimes the stitches indicated how many miles they had left to go,” says Erin O’Connor, a quilter who has been researching this theory. “Others had directional points, telling them which way to go.” The idea is similar, says O’Connor, “to the way Negro spirituals were used as a way to communicate without being noticed.”
O’Connor will be sharing this theory with children at the Bridgehampton Library to celebrate Black History Month. She’ll also read “Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky,” a children’s book by Faith Rheingold that actually takes the shape of a quilt. It’s not the story of how quilts might have been used for escape, but demonstrates the importance of quilting in African-American culture and tells the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
“I think it’s important to expose kids to this ugly part of our history,” says O’Connor. “These people had to resort to escaping from their homes. It’s an interesting way to tell the story to kids. This is a way for them to understand that this happened.” After O’Connor shares the quilting theory and the story of Harriet Tubman, children will have an opportunity to make their own quilts out of paper.
“We’ll try to use the traditional shapes that quilters use,” says O’Connor. “I’ll bring in my own quilts so they can see. We’ll be using paper but they’ll see what the stitching is like. We’ll talk about patterns that exist, but I’ll also encourage them to create their own codes, asking them what they would do if they had to get from one place to another.”
Just as the oral traditions of descendants of slaves last through the generations, so do these quilts, which tell the stories of our cultures. Often groups of women in black and white cultures would gather together, and each would do a square. Sitting in a circle, patching together their unique fabrics, one can only imagine the stories that were shared. “Quilting is near and dear to my heart,” says O’Connor. “I learned it from my mother, and the designs too are passed down over the years from grandmother to granddaughter.”
“Quilting and the Underground Railroad” will be offered to kids and adults at the Bridgehampton Library on Saturday, February 19 at 2:30 pm.