If Sojourner Truth never mentioned it, could it be true?

I wish this myth was true, Buzzkillers. Or at least partly true. The story is that African-Americans and others in the Underground Railroad stitched specific patterns into certain quilts as messages to runaway slaves. The idea, allegedly, was that quilts could be hung out on clothes lines so that escaping slaves could “read” messages that directed them to safe houses, or where to find food, or to hide because slave hunters were around.

If this story had been true, it would have given additional texture to an already rich story about the Underground Railroad. It would have added depth to the nature of communication on the Railroad. And it would have meant that a lot more people were involved in helping slaves escape than actually were.

But it’s not true. At least, as with all of our myths, there’s no evidence for it. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence against it.

Many of the quilt patterns supposedly used images to convey messages–such as “pick up tools and get ready to flee” (the Monkey Wrench pattern). The Wagon Wheel pattern, the myth goes, told slaves to pack everything that could fit into a wagon and get ready for a signal for the time to escape. And there are lots more.

Unfortunately, no independent evidence supports this story. Almost all these quilt patterns weren’t used until long after the Civil War. Quilt historians (yes, Buzzkillers, there are such people) have shown that the patterns “used” as “codes” had either been around long before the Underground Railroad started, or hadn’t developed until decades later. Notable members of the Underground Railroad such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth never mentioned the use of quilt codes in their accounts of the Railroad, even though they talked about quilts in other contexts (such as how quilting circles brought African-American women together in social gatherings).

The two experts on this are quilt historian Leigh Fellner, and Kate Clifford Larson, a noted scholar and expert on Harriet Tubman. They assure us that the quilt code myth is an invention of the late 20th century.

Perhaps the myth works because it sounds great–after all, “secrecy” and “codes” are involved. The myth has made its way into elementary school lessons, so it continues being stitched into our collective history and we’ll therefore be wrapped up tight in this quilt myth for a good long while.  

Leigh Fellner’s website is the most comprehensive study of quilt patterns and “code myths.”

Once again, we owe Mary Miley Theobald a big thank you for her 2012 myth-busting book, Death by Petticoat: American History Debunked for leading us to this myth.

Underground Railroad Professor Buzzkill

The Underground Railroad Sculpture in Battle Creek, Michigan