Every great quilt whether it be a patchwork, appliqué, or strip quilt, is a potential Rosetta Stone.      

Hidden in Plain View – A secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad is a history of coded messages hidden in quilt patterns for escaping slaves to follow. It is a story retold by an African American quilter who had been told the story by her family, and so passed down through the generations to a writer of women’s stories, Jacqueline Tobin. In an attempt to verify this, she researched the subject together with Art Historian Raymond G. Dobard, finding other incidences of quilts used as coded messaging in three separate areas of the southern States.

Fugitive slaves, known as 'contrabands"

who escaped across Union lines in Virginia, 1862

Arnett and Wahlman Souls Grown Deep - African American Vernacular Art

The Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses set up where fugitive slaves could find refuge. The ‘railroad’ ran from Georgia in the south to the northern USA, where sympathy for the slaves and their plight was strongest.

 

The codes were hidden in the patterns of traditional quilts made by the slaves, who would sew their own quilts at night after their working day was over, using whatever scraps of fabric they could find. They combined their knowledge of textiles and patterns brought with them from their tribes in Western and Central Africa. The tribes all had their own traditions; the patterns have evolved and morphed together over the years.

Almost all of the slaves' quilts are gone, owing to the ragged delicate nature of the scraps of cloth, often taken from tattered clothing, the harsh soaps and the hard use they were subjected to. Their codes and traditional patterns live on, woven into modern quilting patterns.

A contemporary quilt using Flying Geese pattern

Examples of quilt code patterns

Monkey Wrench

Get ready. Gather the tools you'll need to build shelters, navigate the journey, or defend yourself along the way

Crossroads

Nicknamed "Hope" this Underground Railroad station was the last stop where slaves would board a boat to Canada.

Log Cabin

You've reached a safe house. These people are friends of slaves.

Bow Ties

You will receive a change of clothes to replace your tatty ones and help you blend in.

Flying Geese

A guide to find water, food and a place to rest.

Drunkard's Path

Go back one space!

This quilt block is a sign that slave hunters are near. Double back to elude them.

North Star

Look to the night skies to help navigate the way. Follow the North Star to Canada.

Tumbling Blocks

The time has come to box up your belongings. Your escape will happen soon.