The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
“Only” Folklore: The Underground Railroad
I’m grateful for the opportunity to visit quilt guilds and quilt shops across the country and speak about various aspects of quiltmaking and quilt culture in America. More and more often, I speak specifically about the historical aspects of these objects we have loved so much for so long. And this history stuff, as the kids might say, is “my jam.” I’m no expert, but I’m working on it—and if I don’t know something, I say so.
Without fail, if a question-and-answer session is given 10 or more minutes at the end of a program, I will get a question/comment regarding the quilt blocks used as a system of code along the Underground Railroad. Have I heard about that? Isn’t it amazing?
"The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom" by Wilbur H. Siebert,
The Macmillan Company, 1898. Image: Wikipedia.
Well, yes, I answer, I have definitely heard about quilt blocks being used on the Underground Railroad. I have heard about North Star blocks being tacked to a tree in order to serve as a makeshift compass for people escaping slavery; I’ve heard about quilt blocks being hung in the window to denote a “safe house;” I’ve heard about riddles almost kabbalistic in their complexity, shared via quilt blocks to help people escape to freedom during the frequently agonizing 19th century.
But then—not because I’m a smarty-pants, but because it would be wrong not to share what I understand about this—I have to deflate the excited energy in the individual. I have to tell the person that it’s a really neat idea, but that there is no hard evidence (or much of any kind of evidence) that a “quilt code” actually existed.
I tell them that there was a 1999 book, Hidden In Plain View, that first put the concept out there and that the book kinda-sorta wasn’t totally forthcoming about how it wasn’t exactly a well-researched, scholarly text but kinda-sorta didn’t stop people when they filled in the blanks that it was just that. Hidden was really more of a fascinating idea, a terrific theory, and a really good story, handed down from a family relative; a story that may or may not have changed a lot over the years, as family stories do. (My family’s stories do: I did not do half the things my sisters say I did when I was little. For the record.)
Is there more to a block than its shape? If you think there is...there might be. Image: Wikipedia.But historians like Barbara Brackman and many others have pretty much established that the “quilt code” had better pony up some records, journals, oral histories, something soon if it wants to be firmly fixed in the annals of quilt history in America.
As you can imagine, there are crestfallen faces when I (gently) share this. And, up until a couple months ago, it was a really terrible moment at these lectures, simply because I hated disappointing people after we had
had so much fun. Besides, we don’t know for sure it didn’t happen; we just don’t have any legit evidence, yet. Maybe I could just mumble something about “Yes, that’s a neat idea, isn’t it?” and ask for
the next question?
But then, one Saturday night a few months ago, while I was glamorously sewing at home on a Saturday night and watching YouTube videos put out by the International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM), I was given a great gift by the great folklorist and quilt historian Laurel Horton.
At the IQSCM in 2015, Horton read a paper of hers entitled, ‘‘The Underground Railroad Quilt Controversy: Looking for the 'Truth.’” In the paper, Horton discusses her research and her conclusions on the topic. What she shared in the lecture has forever changed how I respond to questions in lectures about quilt blocks and the Underground Railroad. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude.
Horton’s rather revolutionary point—to me anyway—is that the Underground Railroad quilt code might not have happened, but that our desire to believe that it did and the propagation of the story is really important. The story, she argues, doesn’t have to be true to have value. The fact that we keep telling it gives it intrinsic, if not empirical, worth.
I dropped my chamomile when I heard that.
"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?,” 1787 medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood for the British anti-slavery campaign. Image: Wikipedia.The tale is folklore, Horton said, and that is not some kind of demotion: folklore is essential to a culture. This is because folklore is all about narrative—and the narratives we share reflect back to us who we are as a culture, a people, a community. Folklore is hot, in other words, and it’s enough.
I learned, watching that lecture, that if we feel strongly about an idea (e.g., that color, shape, pattern, soft fabric, and handmade objects were used to help our fellow men and women in times of great peril) that feeling is of great importance because it says something about what we value. Even
if it’s not factually accurate.
The only trouble with the story as people told it and continued to let it be told, Horton pointed out, was that it was framed as historically true, not as (really wonderful) folklore. At best, this was a misstep in branding; at worst, it misguides people. Don’t make me say “fake news.”
Just today, I gave a lecture to the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild. It was a wonderful afternoon. Sure enough, after my “Brief History of the American Quilt” lecture was done, a question came up about the Underground Railroad “quilt code.”
This time, I knew just what to say.