Secret messages in the form of quilt patterns aided slaves escaping the bonds of captivity in the Southern states before and during the American Civil War. Slaves could not read or write; it was illegal to teach a slave to do so. Codes, therefore, were part and parcel of the slaves’ existence and their route to freedom, which eventually became known as the Underground Railroad. Some forms of dance, spirituals, code words and phrases, and memorized symbols all allowed the slaves to communicate with each other on a level their white owners could not interpret. Codes were created by both whites aiding the slaves, and by Blacks aiding the slaves.
The Blacks included other slaves, former slaves or free men and women. In slavery, secrecy was one way the blacks could protect themselves from the whites; even the youngest child was taught to effectively keep a secret from anyone outside of the family. Most quilt patterns had their roots in the African traditions the slaves brought with them to North America when they were captured and forced to leave their homeland. The Africans’ method of recording their history and stories was by committing it to memory and passing it on orally to following generations. Quilt patterns were passed down the same way. It is interesting to note that, in Africa, the making of textiles was done by males; it was not until the slaves’ arrival in North America that this task fell to the females.
The quilt patterns, used in a certain order, relayed messages to slaves preparing to escape. Each pattern represented a different meaning. Some of the most common were "Monkey Wrench", "Star", "Crossroads", and "Wagon Wheel". Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill, seemingly to air, passed on the necessary information to knowing slaves. As quilts hung out to air was a common sight on a plantation, neither the plantation owner nor the overseer would notice anything suspicious. It was all part of a day’s work for the slaves.
Characteristic of African culture is the communication of secrets through the use of common, everyday objects; the objects are seen so often they are no longer noticeable. This applied to the quilts and their patterns, stitching and knotting. It has been suggested that the stitching and the knotting on slave quilts contained secret information, too, as map routes and the distances between safe houses. Using the quilts, spirituals and code words, the slaves could effectively communicate nonverbally with each other and aid each other to escape.
There is still controversy among historians and scholars over the quilt code theory, and whether or not escaping slaves actually used codes concealed within quilt patterns to follow the escape routes of the Underground Railroad. As oral histories leave no written record, there is no written proof that the codes in the quilt patterns actually existed. What remains are the stories passed down through the generations from the slaves themselves, and, following the code of secrecy, many of the stories were never told.
- Flying Geese: A signal to follow the direction of the flying geese as they migrated north in the spring. Most slaves escaped during the spring; along the way, the flying geese could be used as a guide to find water, food and places to rest. The quilt maker had flexibility with this pattern as it could be used in any quilt. It could also be used as a compass where several patterns are used together.
- North Star: A signal with two messages–one to prepare to escape and the other to follow the North Star to freedom in Canada. North was the direction of traffic on the Underground Railroad. This signal was often used in conjunction with the song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd", which contains a reference to the Big Dipper constellation. Two of the Big Dipper’s points lead to the North Star.
- Monkey Wrench: A signal to gather all the tools required for the fleeing slave’s journey, meaning the physical tools, as well as the mental and spiritual ones.
- Sailboat: A signal that either a body of water was nearby or that boats were available.
- Drunkard’s Path: A warning signal to take a zigzag route to elude pursuing slave hunters and their hounds that are in the area. A slave spotted travelling south, for instance, would not be suspected of escaping.
- Dresden Wheel: It is possible that the Dresden Plate could be a variation of the Wagon Wheel. Records indicate that the Dresden Plate quilt pattern did not emerge until the 1920s.
- Wagon Wheel/Carpenter’s Wheel: A signal to the slave to pack the items needed to travel by wagon or that could be used while travelling. It could also mean to pack the provisions necessary for survival, as if packing a wagon for a long journey, or to actually load the wagon in preparation for escape. Some records indicate this symbol meant a wagon with hidden compartments in which slaves could conceal themselves, would soon be embarking for the trip to freedom.
- Crossroads: A symbol referring to Cleveland, Ohio, which was the main crossroads with several routes to freedom. On a less literal level, the term "crossroads" also means reaching a turning point in one’s life, where a choice must be made and then carry on.
- Bear’s Paw: Follow a mountain trail, out of view, and then follow an actual bear’s trail which would lead to water and food.
- Bow Tie (or Hourglass): A symbol indicating it was necessary to travel in disguise or to change from the clothing of a slave to those of a person of higher status.
- Shoofly: A symbol that possibly identifies a person who can guide and help; a person who helped slaves escape along the Underground Railroad and who knew the codes.
- Tumbling Blocks or Boxes: A symbol indicating it was time for slaves to pack up and go, that a conductor was in the area.
- Broken Dishes: A symbol referring to a signal that involved broken crockery at some future landmark.
- Britches: A symbol indicating the escaping slave needed to dress as a free person.
- Rose Wreath: A symbol that indicated someone had died on the journey. It was an African tradition to leave floral wreaths on the graves of deceased.
- Log Cabin: A symbol in a quilt or that could be drawn on the ground indicating it was necessary to seek shelter or that a person is safe to speak with. Some sources say it indicated a safe house along the Underground Railroad.
- Double Wedding Ring: This pattern did not exist until after the American Civil War. However, the Double Irish Chain pattern did and is believed to have symbolized the chains of slavery. When a slave saw this quilt displayed, it meant the rings or shackles of slavery could be removed. When marrying, slaves did not exchange wedding rings; they "jumped the broom".
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