Several years ago, I was in downtown Atlanta and popped into a quilt museum for African-American quilters. (I don’t remember the exact name.) That was the first I ever heard about the role quilts played in the Underground Railroad. It was a very interesting tour even though it was a fairly small museum. Many of the quilts were in fair to poor condition unlike most other quilt museums I have visited, because they had been saved over the years under much more difficult circumstances.
This is my contribution to Black History Month this year. For those of you who are my regular readers, and you are a very select group, you will notice this series is a little different from my normal offerings here. But sometimes, we need some variety. This is definitely it for this month.
There are some who don’t believe this is even true history. They may be right. But with oral history, it can be hard to verify a lot of the history you hear a few hundred years later.
Because so much about this part of our history had to be shrouded in secrecy, much of it was passed along by mouth. Much of it wasn’t told outside of immediate families until after the Civil War. Sometimes, it was even later before black families told white families these parts of their history. Another reason it was passed on verbally is that many of the people involved couldn’t read or write.
So when you hear people denigrate aspects of this history or say it isn’t valid because it wasn’t written, they are not dealing with the reality of the situation. There are many parts of the world where their history is dependent on verbal history. It tends to be quite consistent. It’s not always infallible, but frequently, the stories tend to agree with each other. The codes described for the quilts are very similar. I’m inclined to believe this really happened.
Here are some of the official dates.
The Underground Railroad was active during the years of 1810-1860. The movement ended with the signature of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. The dates of the Civil War were 1861-1865, so the Proclamation was about half way through the War. It is estimated that over 100,000 slaves were freed through the Underground Railroad.
How likely is it that this happened? Very likely. Who was in charge of the bedding and when it was washed and freshened?
I don’t really know how often these quilts were used as signals for slaves who were escaping, but it sounds reasonable. One quilter suggests the slave women made these quilts themselves in quilting bees as they stayed up all night. I find that hard to believe. To believe that, I would have to have an optimistic view of slavery and the lifestyle the slaves lived. They wouldn’t have been risking their lives to get away from that life if their lives were that good. Making quilts took a very long time. I don’t doubt they may have made some quilts, but not as many as were needed for this.
The homes they worked in had plenty of quilts. It is more likely they used the quilts that were available to them for signaling, under the guise of airing them out or washing them. That would be much more in line with the kind of thinking for clever, sharp-witted people who were needing to get away to freedom. Often, their owners underestimated their intelligence despite the fact that many of them carried a lot of responsibility, despite the fact that they couldn’t read or write. I can’t imagine all the things they had to remember while being unable to write notes to themselves! They had to have sharp minds to stay alive in many cases. I find it ironic that they would be able to use the quilts of their masters to warn and guide the people in the underground railroad along the way. That is very likely what happened,
I’m presenting the blocks to you, two each week. They are approximately in the order of the way I think they might have been needed for the passengers on the Underground Railroad who were escaping.
Monkey Wrench Block (or Churn Dash Block)
A quilt with the Monkey Wrench block would be hung on the fence or porch shortly before it was time for a group to leave. This let the “passengers” know it was time to get their tools together. Tools included some money, a weapon for protection (usually a knife), tools to help build temporary protection along the way, a compass, as well as some food (often a loaf of bread).
Here is a link to my favorite quilting site that shows how to make this block. I know a lot of you probably aren’t interested in quilting. I just added it for those who might be. It’s about as simple as you can imagine. Quilting these days is not what it once was. There are all kinds of shortcuts that speed up the process.
Wagon Wheel Block
The alternate block above is a version of the wagon wheel block, The actual wagon wheel block has a smoother outside rather than the scalloped one.
The Wagon Wheel Quilt was hung to indicate anything from “It is time to load the wagon,” “Time to get provisions ready to leave on the wagon,” “The wagon is ready to go.” There were often many compartments in the wagons. Sometimes, the passengers were hidden in them.
Here is the link to make one kind of wagon wheel. On this site, it is called Grandmother’s Fan and is arranged in a different way than a wheel. But if you put four blocks together in a way that they form a wheel, with the centers meeting in the middle, you will have a wheel. If you look on the internet, you will see quite a variety of other types of Wagon Wheel Blocks. For instructions, I’m pretty much sticking to one person to instruct. Mainly because I find her instructions simple and clear.
2. Underground Railroad Sampler by Eleanor Burns and Sue Bouchard.
This is a pattern book for these quilts that I am writing about and a few more.