Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad
Secrets: Signs and Symbols
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The Language of Quilts

Bible Quilt

This is a bible quilt that Harriett Powers created

Harriet Powers was a slave who made beautiful and important quilts. She was born in 1837 in the state of Georgia. Today, you can see two of her quilts on display at great American museums. They are the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. These quilts are more than a hundred years old.

Quilters have long honored Harriet Powers for her work. Many have copied her style to create quilts of their own. This quilt is one of them. It includes a portrait in cloth symbols of Harriet Powers herself.
Harriet Powers Quilt

Harriet Powers: A Darling Offspring of Her Brain, [© 1995, Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, 69"x92"]

Quilts had many layers of fabric. To join them all together, people used to sew a string through all the layers and tie it off with knots. Tobin and Dobard found some quilts that had unusual knot patterns. To make a quilt secure, people used one or two knots. Yet some of the quilts the two researchers found had knots that were tied as many as five times — much more than would be needed to keep the quilt together.

As they thought about this, they realized that the knots might have been a way of telling escaping slaves a pattern of travel between safe houses or hiding places. The more knots, the greater the distance, they thought. This method of knotting also had roots in the belief systems of the Ibo people in Africa. In that culture, people tied five knots in a piece of cloth to ask for protection from the spirits around them.

Bowtie Pattern
Bowtie Pattern

Bear's Paw Pattern
Bear’s Paw Trail

Tobin and Dobard also knew that Africans who were brought into this country grew up with coded information all around them. They were used to seeing the symbolism in many different objects. For example, the quilt pattern called Bowtie looks like an “X” on its side. This X-shaped symbol was very common in African culture. Some feel this quilt symbol was a signal to the escaping slaves to dress up. Free blacks and others would meet escaping slaves and give them fresh, new clothing, so that they could blend in with the other black people living in the area.

Some people question whether quilts were actually used as a form of secret communication. They say that there is little in writing or oral reports that says this is true. However, others, such as Tobin and Dobard, think otherwise. After all, they say, the Underground Railroad was built on secrecy. No one would have written down information like this, or told too many others. If the secrets were well known, lives would be at stake.

What do you think?

Make your own Secret Quilt Message »

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