Did quilts serve as coded communication for escaping slaves navigating the Underground Railroad? The concept is debated among quilt and Railroad historians, but the idea — as Bonnie Browning of the American Quilter’s Society in Paducah, Ky., said to National Geographic News — “makes a wonderful story.”
Sara Deloach of Columbus is hand-stitching her way through a historical series of 10 quilt patterns said to have held secret signals. The squares, triangles and other geometric shapes are believed by many to have served as messages when gatherings and other means of communication were outlawed. What might have looked like an old quilt draped across a fence or clothesline might have actually held signs that led to freedom.
Deloach, 61, said, “Making a quilt using each pattern becomes a quest for truth and discovery.” When the series is complete, she hopes it will be a reminder of the trials and tribulations of a people struggling “to overcome hardship.”
“This is the Drunkard’s Path pattern,” said Deloach, running her fingers across a zig-zag patterned quilt in bright orange and flowered print. “See how it doesn’t ever go in a straight line? It meant don’t travel straight.” Deloach was in Elizabeth Simpson’s Columbus home. It was Simpson who brought the Underground Railroad patterns to the attention of her talented friend who makes a black history quilt each year. The two women will present a talk titled “Underground Railroad Quilt Stories” April 24 at 2 p.m. at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, 314 Seventh St. N.
“Elizabeth really enthused me. Every time she finds something she thinks will be beneficial to me, she lets me know,” smiled the seamstress who used to quilt alongside her mother. Sewing had to be put aside for years, though, after her mother fell ill and Deloach became a caregiver. She’s happy to be at it again.
“Now that I’ve started, I don’t want to quit. It’s a mind-easer,” said the quiltmaker who is prone to get up at 2 or 3 a.m. to resume her careful hand-stitching. She credits Doris Gardner, her missionary president at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Millport, Ala., and a seamstress in Northport, Ala., for helping with some of the quilting process.
The Underground Railroad, of course, was not a physical rail line. It was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves of African descent in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies sympathetic to their cause.
The series of 10 quilt patterns Deloach is working on, and an abbreviated version of their proposed messages according to cic..gc.ca and humanities 360.com, include:
Brenda Durrett, public services assistant at the Columbus-Lowndes County Library, encouraged the community to attend the April 24 talk and display by Deloach and Simpson.
“This is going to be interesting and real educational, a chance to hear about something unique,” she said.
The premise of quilts as codes was put forth in 1999 in the book “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad,” by art historian Raymond Dobard Jr. and Jacqueline Tobin, a college instructor in Colorado. They based it on the 1994 oral statements of a South Carolina quilt vendor, Ozella McDaniel Williams.
Quilt scholars and historians argue that there is no documentary evidence, such as slave memoirs or oral history interviews of escaped slaves and abolitionists active in the Underground Railroad. No one is left living to offer verification. But the concept is compelling to many. Deloach believes it is true. And she was pleased to discover that many of the patterns she and her mother worked on years ago were the same ones associated with the Underground Railroad quilts. Stitching them now is about heritage, in more ways than one.
For more information about the April 24 quilt talk, contact the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, 662-329-5300.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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