Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 6: The Underground Railroad Quilt Code Hoax

The presence of quilts, or lack thereof, is the ultimate
quilt mythology lie detector test.
Setting the record straight: the biggest hoax in the history of American quilts is the Underground Railroad Quilt Code. It started with a 1999 book, "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad" by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. According to the story, slaves created quilts with secret codes to advise those fleeing captivity, guiding them safely along the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, the story was heavily promoted before it was vetted. 

OK, so maybe it's a little insensitive to call it a hoax. That's a word I chose to bring attention to it, and attention is needed. The story surfaced almost 20 years ago, and people still believe it! Passing time does not lessen the sense of urgency among historians to set the record straight. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum presented a brief overview of the topic in its World Quilts section of the web site. "A folk story from an individual family" was a more tactful way to characterize it.

Where are the quilts?

The story is based on recollections from Ozella McDaniel Williams, a Los Angeles teacher who learned quiltmaking in South Carolina and once sold a quilt to Tobin. Williams shared the family's oral history about the quilt codes with Tobin, who asked Dobard to assist with a book on the subject. The year before the book was released, Dobard appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, promoting the family story as fact. 

The nagging question for supporters of the historically-implausible story continues to be, "Where are the quilts?" I was curious, so I did a quick search of the Quilt Index, an online database with more than 50,000 records such as state documentation project findings and museum collections. The search, using the keyword "slave" produced 110 results, and roughly 30 of those were from the appropriate, pre-abolition period.

None of the quilts fit the descriptions from the book, and only one had a block referenced in the book - a Shoo Fly quilt from North Carolina. The quilt was said to be buried by slaves during the Civil War, and although the makers were listed, the quilt was not identified as slave made. Examples attributed to slaves were predominately elegant quilts, the kind used by slave owners, such as an 1826 "Broderie Perse" documented in North Carolina. That quilt was "possibly" quilted by slaves, according to the record.

From a quilt history perspective, several of the block designs did not exist before abolition, and barely existed before 1900. Very few Double Wedding Ring quilts made before 1900 have ever surfaced, for example. Log Cabin quilts did not appear much before 1870. The naming of quilt patterns did not really take place until the advent of mass media and publication of quilt designs in newspapers and magazines. That was around the turn of the century. There was one publication during the pre-abolition period that published patchwork designs - Godey's Lady's Book - but the publication did not assign any names to patterns. The naming of patterns was also part of the trend toward romanticism, springing out of the Colonial Revival.

The story of the Underground Railroad Quilt Code left historians, who do not have major network television talk shows, scrambling for ways to communicate the truth. And the truth was, there were no quilts to support the story. The presence of quilts, or lack thereof, is the ultimate quilt mythology lie detector test. Today, almost two decades after the story first surfaced, millions of Americans still believe in the story. Quilt historians, who already have a hard time reaching the mainstream with their research, face an uphill battle.


"I remember that my initial response was a mixture of surprise and optimism," said Laurel Horton in a 2006 lecture she gave at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. "The more I heard about the book, however, the more I realized that many of the details did not correspond to what I knew about either quiltmaking or the realities of slavery."

The lecture was based on a paper she wrote, and I wanted to include the video here because she deserves credit for doing such good homework. If more people take the time to listen to what she had to say, they might realize the Underground Railroad Quilt Code is the stuff of legends.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for the info!

  2. I see this kind of 'history' happening all the time, not only in the quilt world. Myths tend to be more colorful than reality - people love to retell them. Thanks for the clarification.

  3. Your blog is so educational. I look forward to it. Thank you!

  4. I stood up and cheered when Laurel finished her presentation. What makes it even more significant is the fact that Laurel is a folklorist. There is a place for both history and folklore. It is simply vital that we know the difference.

  5. Thank you for posting the lecture. It was very interesting, and well worth listening to.