The New York Times yesterday covered the debunking of the quilt code myth—the legend that patterns stitched into quilts guided escaping slaves to freedom in the North. The myth stems from a story told by quiltmaker (and able saleswoman) Ozella McDaniel Williams to Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, who repeated it in a 1999 book.
According to “Hidden in Plain View,” slaves created quilts with codes to advise those fleeing captivity. What looked to the slave master like an abstract panel on a quilt being “aired out” on a porch in fact represented a reminder, say, to be sure to follow a zigzag path to avoid being tracked when escaping. In Ms. Williams’s account, there was a sequence of 10 panels to guide an escaping slave, beginning with a “monkey wrench” pattern meaning to gather up tools and supplies and concluding with a star, a reminder to head north. [Link]The story is no more substantiated than the lawn jockey legend I wrote about last September. Today at Boston 1775, J. L. Bell provides a plausible explanation of why these myths take hold so quickly and firmly. Here he quotes Roberta Gold:
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. [Link]