J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Myth of the Quilt Code

Yesterday the New York Times front page reported on historians’ dismay at the myth that patchwork quilts were used to guide escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. In particular, quilt designs have been incorporated into a monument to Frederick Douglass in Central Park (Algernon Miller’s floor design shown at left). Experts in the history of slavery are pushing back, and the city is rethinking the plaques originally intended to explain those patchwork designs as part of the “quilt code.”

The article quotes artist Miller as saying, “No matter what anyone has to say, they weren’t there in that particular moment, especially something that was in secret.” Of course, he wasn’t there, either. The crucial fact is that no person who was there escaping from slavery or helping others to escape is documented as ever saying a word about a quilt code.

Nor is there any example of an antebellum quilt that fits the system. The different “quilt codes” that a handful of people have described based on family oral traditions are inconsistent with each other, with the historical realities of how Americans escaped from slavery, and with the history of quilting.

This topic has little to do with Revolutionary New England, but I was involved in the online discussions which prompted the Times article. The first began in October 2005, when Prof. Donovan Conley of the UNLV Department of Communication Studies contacted H-Amstdy (an email list on American Studies), and thence H-Slavery (on the history of slavery), with this request:

I have a student working on a masters project about the communicational and political uses of quilts throughout the underground railroad. He’s discovering an inherent problem with the project: the lack of primary research materials.
Several members of the H-Slavery list were familiar with the “quilt code” hypothesis from the 1999 book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobar, and a private Underground Railroad Quilt Code Museum in Atlanta. Discussion followed for three days, with over a dozen people writing in. Several members of the H-Slavery list pointed Conley to Leigh Fellner’s website thoroughly debunking the myth of quilts and the Underground Railroad.

Prof. David Blight, Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, summed up the overwhelming consensus of the group this way:
The reason your student is not finding primary material on quilting in the Underground Railroad is because in all likelihood there isn’t any. This is “myth” of the softest kind that serves the needs of the present for people who prefer their history as lore and little else. . . .

The quilt story...will survive and thrive as long as it serves real needs in the desires many people have from history—to convert tragedy into something triumphal, suffering into progress, complexity into curiosity, nitty gritty social and political history into material culture we can touch and see.
Conley’s student proceeded with his project, inserting (with some inaccuracies) quotations and summaries of the H-Slavery discussion into his thesis—which still rested on the assumption that the “quilt code” is fact. UNLV awarded a master’s degree. News of that prompted a new round of discussions on H-Slavery last month, which in turn caught the attention of History News Network and the Times.

My original contribution to the discussion was a close reading of Tobin’s introduction to Hidden in Plain View. As she described her research, it struck me she was so eager to connect to African-American history that she overlooked how little evidence she actually had, of either the “quilt code” or genuine friendship with her elderly African-American informant—who was making her living by selling quilts. I saw Tobin’s wishfulness as mirroring a desire for racial reconciliation in today’s America:
During that talk, Tobin writes, she comes to think of herself as “one of only a few trusted people” to hear about the quilts’ secret. Both Williams and her eventual coauthor Raymond Dobard have told her she would learn the secrets only when she was “ready.” At last, this second conversation seems to confirm, Tobin is “ready” for such a secret. And, by implication, so are the book's readers and America as a whole.
In the more recent discussion, Roberta Gold offered this perceptive observation on the “quilt code”:
It seems to me that the spread of the quilt myth is part of a larger popular “domestication” of African American past, in which the complex, bleak and tragic dimensions of black history are softened and smoothed into something that isn’t too disturbing to teach to kindergartners. . . . The injustice is not erased, exactly, but it’s air-brushed with a disproportionate amount of heartwarming, feel-good interpretation. In the case of “code quilts,” it’s literally made into something warm and fuzzy.
Indeed, there are many elementary school lesson plans about the “quilt code,” despite all the serious historical questions. (This lesson from Queens University in Ontario is so inaccurate as to say that Tobin’s main informant is still alive. As Hidden in Plain View reported, she died in 1998.) My paper on “grandmothers’ stories” of the Revolution argues that well-structured tales we learn early in life—as the “quilt code” aspires to be—have a particularly strong hold on our understanding of history later. So this myth could be around for a while, even after people realize it’s a myth. (The “quilt code” has also been publicized in other influential, non-scholarly ways: Oprah, quilting patterns, the web.)

The National Park Service, on its guard against feel-good myths, has issued guidelines for evaluating historical traditions about the Underground Railroad. The “quilt code” doesn’t match up to those guidelines for strong evidence.

On the other hand, the National Security Agency has a webpage all about the “quilt code,” which it insists is based on ”strong oral tradition and collateral information.“ And that’s the agency we’re supposed to trust to judge our electronic communications?


Larry Cebula said...

A typically excellent post. There is an interesting discussion on this topic over at Metafilter: http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/57986

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks! That discussion led me to a very useful list compiled by the National Park Service of homes where escaped slaves were sheltered, based on strong evidence.

Anonymous said...

One characteristic of a good confidence scheme is delaying the mark's gratification until s/he finally insists on receiving the fraudulent item -- the mysterious map, the czarina's lost ruby, the secret never before revealed. This tactic has the effect of engaging the mark so deeply that s/he loses any natural suspicion and defends the authenticity of the received item against all attacks. But perhaps this tactic is irrelevant to the case described.