The Underground Railroad Quilt Codes

As a novice quilter, I enrolled in quilting class, The Underground Railroad Quilt, instructed by Debra Hanes, at the P.G. Sports and Learning Center in Landover, Maryland. I was reintroduced to the history of slavery and the significance of Underground Railroad Quilts as a means of communication. The class project was to produce a quilt with the symbols used to communicate with the runaway slaves. Below are some of quilt blocks I created with their meaning.
Hidden  View In addition to using several web sites as references on the Underground Railroad Quilt codes, the primary reading was Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.


Monkey Wrench

Monkey Wrench

Slaves knew it was time to gather their tools, mental and physical, needed for the long journey to freedom.
Wagon Wheels

Wagon Wheel

Pack things that would go in a wagon or used in their travels.
Bear's Paw

Bear's Paw

Follow the bear tracks which would lead to water and food.
Crossroads

Crossroads

Meet at the main crossroads of Cleveland, Ohio
Log cabin

Log Cabin

Quilt pattern with a red center indicated a safe house or a warm hearth.
Shoofly

Shoofly

Dress up in cotton and satin Bow Ties.
BowtieHourglass

Bow Ties or Hour Glass

Someone to be trusted or among friends.
Flying Geese

Flying Geese

In the spring, follow the geese northward.
Drunkard's Path

Drunkard's Path

Walk in an unusual manner; make your tracks difficult to follow.
Tumbling Blocks

Tumbling Blocks or Boxes

The tenth quilt pattern was associated with "packing up and moving on"

Other Quilt Symbols

North Star

North Star

This symbol directed the slaves to look for the constellation drinking gourd (Big Dipper) which pointed to the North Star which lead them northward.
Basket

Basket

Collect food items in a basket.
Sailboat 1

Sailboat

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob's Ladder

Based upon the biblical story of Jacob.
Nine Patch

Nine Patch

Basic quilting block
Broken Dishes

Broken Dishes

Resources:
Ozella's Underground Railroad Quilt
Describes the main quilt symbols found on the slave quilts as found in the book, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground RailroadNY:Doubleday, 1999.
Follow the Drinking Gourd by Patrick D. Weadon
U. S. National Security Agency uses the science of Cryptology the unravel the mystery of The Slave Quilts.
Fry, Gladys-Marie.Stitched from the Soul. NY:Dutton Studio Books in association with the Museum of American Folk Art, 1990.

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Doris Cuffey, Educational Consultant
Novice Quilter