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Debunking the Quilt Codes

Historians cite proof
that quilt codes are a myth

Legend said they were secret signs
to help slaves reach freedom

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

January 2009 Indiana & Kentucky Edition Cover

January 2009
Indiana & Kentucky
Edition Cover

(January 2009) – By the time Leigh Fellner began quilting, she also decided to delve into the history of her new-found passion. She stumbled upon something historians refer to as the Underground Railroad Quilt Code, and she has spent every spare minute since then researching what she and many others believe is nothing more than a myth.
The story of the Quilt Code was first published in 1999 in “Hidden in Plain View” by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Ph.D. The logic behind the Quilt Code is that various geometric quilting patterns were used to convey messages to aide in a slave’s escape route on the Underground Railroad.
The book was prompted by Ozella McDaniel Williams, a retired Los Angeles school administrator who touted her own version of the Quilt Code to sell quilts in a Charleston, S.C., tourist mall. Tobin, a writer, was among her customers. She coaxed Williams into supposedly revealing the Code to her.
A recent project by the Trimble County Cooperative Extension Service and the Trimble County Thimbles has sparked a renewed interest in the Quilt Code in this area. Trimble County is using the Underground Railroad as the theme for its Barn Quilt Project, thus bringing to light the debate over the Quilt Code and its authenticity.
A few years ago the Trimble County Thimbles donated an Underground Railroad themed quilt to the Trimble County Apple Festival. This seemed reasonable to the quilters because “Trimble County was involved in the Underground Railroad,” said Jane Proctor, Trimble County Cooperative Extension Agent. “This project was put together by a committee and we learned a lot.”
Those who have spent countless hours researching the credibility of the Code have come to the conclusion that there is no truth to the story. “The Code uses quilt blocks, such as the Double Wedding Ring and Sunbonnet Sue, known to have originated no earlier than the late 1920s,” said Fellner, 51, a nationally known quilt historian and scholar who lives in Pensacola, Fla.

Leigh Fellner

Photo provided

Leigh Fellner, a
nationally known
quilter from
Pensacola, Fla., has researched the
Quilt Code, only to find evidence that the
story is a myth.

“The way slaves were supposed to have escaped using the Code (in groups on carefully planned dates, northwest from South Carolina and Georgia across the Appalachian Mountains to Cleveland, then to Canada via Niagara Falls) contradicts all first-hand accounts of actual fugitives who made it to Canada,” she said. “Most fugitives who headed north were from the border states of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee; Deep South slaves headed further south.”
Jeannie Regan-Dinius, director of Special Initiatives for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, agreed with Fellner. “I have seen no evidence showing that the Quilt Code was used.”
Regan-Dinius went on to say that “historians are bothered by the Quilt Code because it is undocumented stories. Historians are about telling factual history, not made-up stories, especially about the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad is so steeped in local legends and myths that the Quilt Code just adds to the myths.”
In contrast, there are many true, inspiring, little-known stories of free African-Americans who risked much to assist enslaved persons escape. These include George De Baptiste, a free African-American from Madison, Ind. “These are the real stories of real people facing real danger that should be part of our national heritage,” said Mary Jane Teeters-Eichacker, Curator of Social History at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.
“It hurts to have them forgotten and fictional stories, no matter how charming, take their place,” said Teeters-Eichacker. “It devalues their work, their sacrifice and their reality.”
Supporters of the Code claim to have learned of it through oral histories of their ancestors, a claim that lacks tangible evidence. Questions have been raised because no one can name a specific ancestor who used the Code to escape to the North or to find their way on the Underground Railroad.
When a quilt magazine published an article on the Quilt Code by author Williams’ niece, Serena Wilson, Fellner decided to research the Code and respond to the article. This also led to a correspondence with Teresa Kemp, Wilson’s daughter.
Through her conversations with Kemp, Fellner never found the documented answers she was looking for to substantiate the claim of the Quilt Code. She took her own information and created a website to inform others about the Quilt Code.
Fellner said the Quilt Code “conveys all sorts of mistaken notions about slave life. It turns a life-and-death struggle into a treasure hunt while adding the “cuddliness” of quilts.”
Historian Diane Perrine Coon of Louisville, Ky., has researched the Underground Railroad for 12 years. Although her work has centered on Henry Bibb, a slave born near New Castle, Ky., who escaped and became a popular antislavery speaker and Canada’s first black newspaper editor, Coon is familiar with the Quilt Code. She refers to it not as a hoax, but rather explains, “It is limited to a tiny area in our country.”
She, as well as Tobin, attribute the Quilt Code to the Gullah Natives who lived along the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah inhabited a coastal strip 250 miles long and 40 miles wide, separated from the mainland by salt-water rivulets. In his book, “The Gullah People and Their African Heritage,” William S. Pollitzer characterized them as similar to black West Indians and Brazilians who were transported from the Western Sudan, the Guinea Coast and the Congo.
The Gullah maintained their African heritage in the new world, and many believe they transformed it into their quilts to be used as a secret code. “The Quilt Code has not been seen anywhere else in the country,” said Coon. For this reason, she said it is not plausible that the Kentucky or Indiana Underground Railroad lines used the Quilt Code.
Coon became acquainted with Tobin while working on another project involving the A.M.E Church and Underground Railroad activity, organized by Howard University and George Washington University. She said the public is so fascinated by the Quilt Code story because “the story has been so poorly told.”
The importance of the role free blacks played in the Underground Railroad has not come to light yet, she said. Had it not been for free blacks, the Underground Railroad would not have been successful in the Kentucky area, said Coon.
Jae Breitweiser, president of Eleutherian College in Lancaster, located in northern Jefferson County, Ind., said that amidst the tons of research she and her colleagues with Indiana Freedom Trails have conducted, they have seen “no documentation that quilts were used” on the routes across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Indiana. The Freedom Trails group represents the entire state of Indiana, thus there is no room for error among their findings.

Michelle Klein

Photo by Helen E. McKinney

Michelle Klein of
The Gathering Room
and The Quilt Shoppe
in La Grange, Ky.,
poses with some of
the quilts she sells.
She has always
thought the codes
were real.

The question of the Quilt Code comes up a lot in her line of work, she said. She is a well known historian of Jefferson County, having researched the area for 17 years. The college, founded in 1848, was involved with the Underground Railroad, being the first stop leading North from Madison.
Breitweiser, like many other historians, uses primary sources for references, such as actual courthouse documents from the time period in question, books written in the local area, any personal slave accounts and or abolitionist diaries that might exist. Such sources prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is substantial evidence, or a lack thereof, in the case of the Quilt Code.
“If you think of the reality of escaping,” said Breitweiser, “these people were barely getting through.” With bounties of $500 to $1,000 on the head of some slaves, there were slave catchers lying in wait to catch runaway slaves and return them to their masters or sell them to make a profit. At that price, some slaves “were a very valuable commodity.”
Someone was constantly trying to find escaping slaves, she said. For this reason, many slaves stole away under cover of the night, where they would not be likely to view a quilt and decipher its hidden meaning. Breitweiser said there are documented stories of lanterns hung in windows to light the way for slaves, signaling a safe house where they might rest or be given food.
“Indiana was not very kind with the laws it presented for slaves,” she said. “They were allowed to come in, but (the state) did not make it easy for them.”
She sites one particular state law put into effect around 1837 that stated every single person, even if they had never been a slave, still had to pay a $500 bond to live in Indiana. This was inclusive of every family member.
De Baptiste brought 180 slaves to Lancaster, said Breitweiser, and challenged the law. Noted lawyer Stephen C. Stevens helped De Baptiste win his case through a loophole in the original law. The law required slaves to be taken back to the state they were from, but it did not specify who would actually transport the slave back to their home state.
Even though “Some think it’s a fallacy, I want to believe that the Code was true,” said Michelle Klein, owner of The Quilt Shoppe in La Grange, Ky. Klein, an avid quilter, said many times quilting encourages quilters to learn the history behind the patterns they are using.

Dinius-Regan

Dinius-Regan

“A lot of times people will pick a pattern because of where it originated,” she said. Most quilt blocks have names and different meanings. Many were named for certain people or events, said Klein.
After coming across “The Underground Railroad Sampler,” by Eleanor Burns and Sue Bouchard, Klein decided to make the quilt described in this book. Much like the information presented in “Hidden in Plain View,” the authors state that quilts were used as communication tools between slaves and those helping them escape. Klein also sites author Barbara Brackman, a creator of reproduction quits, as a noted author who presents the Quilt Code as fallacy.
Because the Code is based on the oral history of the Deep South, it is probable that it has been embellished as it was pieced together, Coon believes. This is one reason “most academics don’t treat it well.”
While there are many undocumented stories of harrowing escapes and unprecedented brave deeds that may be lost forever to the general population, quilt historians feel it is not fair to promote a myth as the truth.
The history of the Underground Railroad “is a great story; we don’t need to make up others,” said Regan-Dinius.

• For more information, visit Fellner’s website at www.ugrrquilt.hartcottagequilts.com.

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