Recently I have grown a great fascination to the Underground Railroad. I must say that I am not a historian and do not remember much of the information well, which is probably why I did not get good grades in history when I was in school. I think the interest began when we had a presentation about the quilts used for the slaves as they traveled out of slavery.
The woman who presented the information about the story was very sure of the legend and truly believes that it is fact. A lady named Ozella McDaniel Williams told Jacqueline Tobin to write down the story she was about to tell her. It was important information and needed to be preserved. Ozella was a decedent of slaves and wanted this lady who passed through her booth at the Market Place in Charleston, SC to know the details. Jacqueline was perusing the many merchants in the historical market and was drawn into a spot with some quilts. From what I understand Ozella told her to come into her booth and sit down so she could talk to her.
Her story is that quilts were used to guide the slaves through the perils of escape. Different quilt patterns showed the runaways where to go, safe places and what was available to them. The stories of the slaves were mostly passed through oral history as few knew how to write. The passage to the north was told to them by those who knew someone that had traveled the path. Ozella's story of the quilts was passed to her from her ancestors.
The most famous of the quilt blocks was the Log Cabin Square. It represented a safe house when hung on the railing outside of the home, a place where the slave could find refuge. When the runaway saw the Bow Tie quilt they were to dress as if they belonged to the area. It was a way to say that they belonged there and would not appear to be a standout to others who may be watching or tracking them. The North Star told them to continue to follow the north star that would lead them to a free state. The secret codes in fabric was a simple way to guide the way.
Interesting to this story is that there is no documented quilt that was used during the historical period. But there are not many quilts that survived this time period because of there use. Many quilts were used to bury soldiers or destroyed during battles and rampages to homes. So this brings the question of truth or legend. Many have discredited this historical story because it was not shared until 150 years later and the fact that there is no evidence other than this one woman's version of the account.
Last summer Gary and I visited Charleston. We loved the historical town and all that it represents. We went to the Market Place and found a large fascination with the Sweet Grass Baskets. But we did not see any quilts. We visited the Slave Market and asked specifically about the Underground Railroad. We were told it was not a part of the slaves in that area.
This brings me to my questions about the quilts. I love the old quilts and the reproduction fabrics that are produced now. Some ladies and men have made gorgeous quilts to show what was made at that time. They are rich in warm colors and simple blocks or elaborate applique. I have purchased the book published with the quilt blocks of the Underground Railroad to use someday to make a quilt. I am however not convinced that this is a true secret code to guide the slaves to freedom but is makes for a wonderful story of perseverance and support to what was right for all citizens of the United States of America. My opinion is that it is not appropriate to teach it as history but rather a possible way for the slaves to find the passage to the north to freedom and a legend to be shared for the purpose of ingenuity and determination.