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Quilts and the Underground Railroad

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Do you see quilts as just cozy, inert blankets on the bed? Think again. Quilts are active agents in history and vivid storytellers.

Spreading the word about the importance of quilts is Macia Fuller’s mission. In Saturday’s Black History Month program at the Carmichael Library, Fuller described how coded patterns were sewn into quilts to help black slaves escape via the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad but a network of hidden pathways and safe houses that existed from the late 1700’s to the 1860’s to help southern slaves escape to Canada and free northern states in the U.S. The network was supported by abolitionists, free blacks, Quakers and other allies.

According to Fuller, quilts were one of the tools used to covertly convey messages to the travelers about where they should go and what they should do. The quilts would be “casually” hung on fences as signals.

For example, if the “Log Cabin” pattern was displayed with a dark center, it meant that the house was not a safe place to stop at that time. “Flying Geese” signaled a direction of travel while “Drunkard’s Path” meant that the traveler should not take the straightforward route but go a more circuitous way. 

Some quilts were of a more topographic nature. Quilt squares gave a picture of the local landscape much like an airplane view of Sacramento shows large blocks of farmlands. Sometimes quilt knots could indicate mileage.

Fuller cited “Hidden in Plain View,” a book published in 2000, as one of the sources of quilt code information. Written by Jacqueline Tobin and Maude Southwell Wahlman, the book shared the quilt secrets, as revealed by African American quilter Ozella Williams.

Quilt scholars challenge the claims made in the book. Patricia Turner, Vice Provost at the University of California, Davis and author of “Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters,” calls the quilt code “an urban legend.”

“Many of the symbols claimed to be in the quilts had not even been designed before the Civil War,” said Turner. She said that there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that the quilt code is real. “The narratives of freed slaves never mention it.”

Still, there is a possibility that quilts were used in some capacity in the Underground Railroad. It could be that houses with trap doors and attics to hide slaves may have been marked by placing a quilt on the fence, noted Turner.

Although the truth of the coded quilt patterns may be disputed, what is undebatable is that quilts serve as personal and community memory books. Fuller says that quilts tell the story of people’s lives. A quilt might contain “pieces of a daughter’s graduation dress or a mother’s apron” and are priceless bits of history.

During her research, Fuller discovered a few quilts sewn by an acquaintance, Miss Opal. One of the quilts was made with bits of unusually fine material which sparked Fuller’s curiosity and caused her to ask for its story. Miss Opal called it her “Sunday Quilt” because she would pull it out on Sundays when visitors came to call.

Miss Opal created that particular quilt when she was younger and lived near the aviators, Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran. Earhart and Cochran would sometimes offer her tea and give her their taffeta dresses which she converted into quilts.

The “Sunday Quilt” story illustrates that black history is not just about blacks but is connected to all history, says Fuller.

Not only do quilts tell stories, but they do so in a creative way. Fuller describes quilts as a form of art that shows a great pride of craftsmanship.

In her presentation, Macia Fuller succeeded in her primary goal of helping others to recognize the precious history stitched into every handmade quilt and encouraging them to preserve and protect their own quilts.

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