Tuesday, February 7, 2017

What Do You See?

Freedom, Oh Freedom

(No payment or compensation of any kind has been received for books, articles, or museums and their exhibits mentioned in this post. All writing/opinions are my own.)

What do you see when you view a quilt? Viewers of quilt exhibits might see harmonious colors and patterns woven together to create works of art. A person who is fortunate enough to own an heirloom quilt, which has been passed down for a few generations, might see family memories and stories sewn together with love. However, in the early to mid-19th century, the way individuals viewed quilts might have affected their own personal freedom.

Books and stories tell us of the importance of quilts during the time of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by African-American slaves to escape into free states. Many of these slaves were illiterate due to the rules of white slaveowners who forbade them to learn reading and writing. Because of this, symbols and signs were crucial as the slaves attempted to escape slavery and travel north. Freedom quilts provided symbols, known now as slave codes, to guide slaves to safe routes and to people who would help them on their challenging journey. These quilts were made with specific blocks and patterns that included symbols the slaves memorized and communicated to each other. Quilts were hung over fences, seemingly to air out, but in actuality the quilts were there to provide necessary information to the slaves. To see some of these quilt patterns and slave codes and the messages they communicated, click here.

Illustration from Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James E. Ransome

Many of the quilt patterns that were so important in the era of the Underground Railroad are still used by quilters today. One of the most popular is the log cabin. According to tradition, the center of a log cabin block is red to represent hearth and home. However, if slaves saw a log cabin quilt where the centers of the blocks were a deep blue, like the illustration above, this told them that they were at a safe house where they would be fed and sheltered.

Stories of freedom quilts have become a bit controversial in recent years. Some historians have pointed out that there is no written evidence about slaves using symbols on quilts to aid in their escape. These historians have protested the writing of books for both adults and children which give information about freedom quilts. They have spoken against museums which display exhibits about slave codes and quilts. They are quick to try to debunk what they consider the "myth of quilts and the Underground Railroad" as a 2007 Time Magazine article states. 

Does it really matter if we have written evidence of the freedom quilts? I say, in this case, it does not. We have a rich, oral storytelling tradition about freedom quilts that has been documented in books. These stories provide a way for us to have a glimpse into the struggles and challenges the African-American slaves faced and their strength and perseverance as they sought to overcome those challenges. Seeing the perspective of others and understanding their struggles can allow us to experience empathy and compassion and to gain wisdom through their stories. In this case, that's what matters. 

Flossie Hamm and I agree about the importance of freedom quilts. Flossie is a seamstress and dressmaker who has decided to honor her own heritage by making Underground Railroad quilts. One of her quilts has been displayed in the Georgia Writers Museum in Eatonton, Georgia. Flossie, now called the underground seamstress, intends to make an Underground Railroad quilt for each of her children and grandchildren--11 quilts in all. Then she aspires to make a quilt like this for every black church across the United States. In Flossie's own words: "I want each of them to have a quilt to tell the story of our heritage, not focusing on slavery or the difficulties our people had, but of their strength and determination. Strength and determination to do anything to attain freedom and to make something of their lives."  You can read more about Flossie's story here.

Flossie Hamm
Source: http://deepsouthmag.com/2016/05/12/the-underground-seamstress/

Underground Railroad Quilt by Flossie Hamm
Source: http://deepsouthmag.com/2016/05/12/the-underground-seamstress/

So what do you see? I encourage you, when you next see a quilt, to remember the courage of those African-American slaves who risked their lives for freedom. I ask you to think about the individuals and families who made those freedom quilts with just the right symbols and codes and then who had the courage to display those quilts and offer shelter and a meal to freedom-seeking individuals. 

For more information on the Underground Railroad and freedom quilts, please visit this online resource from Maryland Public Television. While visiting this site, you can even create your own secret message quilt block.

Children's picture books are often powerful and poignant with words of wisdom for both children and adults. For more information about the Underground Railroad and freedom quilts, you might enjoy the following picture books.

  • Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson (a Reading Rainbow book)
  • Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson (featured above in this blog post)
Your comments are important to me. Please respond and share your thoughts and opinions.

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  1. Thank you, Ron. I enjoyed writing it.

  2. This is such an interesting and important topic you write about, Sharon. How sad that there are people who would try to debunk the quilt codes as a "myth." Many stories of old were passed by word of mouth. Thanks for such a timely and well written post!

  3. Thanks for your kind comments, Debbie. I think it's especially sad for those whose own heritage is being questioned. I'm glad there are authors and museum curators who have chosen to keep telling the story of freedom quilts.

  4. Great post. I love quilts. I have many that my grandmother made and one that my grandfather made. I buy them whenever I can. I have a log cabin quilt that was my great grandmothers.
    Thanks for sharing at Over The Moon Party,

  5. I really enjoy the process of quilting, but it's also nice being part of a long-standing quilting community. Thanks for sharing your love of quilts, Bev.


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