Black History Month

Underground Railroad Quilt Code

Secret messages in the form of quilt patterns helped slaves escape the bonds of captivity in the Southern states before and during the American Civil War.

Codes: key to freedom

Slaves could not read or write; it was illegal to teach a slave to do so. Codes, therefore, were important to the slaves’ existence and their route to freedom, which eventually became known as the Underground Railroad. Some forms of dance, spirituals, code words and phrases, and memorized symbols all allowed the slaves to communicate with each other on a level their white owners could not interpret.

Codes were created by both Blacks and Whites helping the slaves. The Blacks included other slaves, former slaves or free men and women. In slavery, secrecy was one way the Blacks could protect themselves from the Whites; even the youngest child was taught to effectively keep a secret from anyone outside the family.

History of quilt patterns

Most quilt patterns had their roots in African traditions the slaves brought with them to North America when they were captured and forced to leave their homeland. The Africans’ method of recording their history and stories was by committing them to memory and passing them on orally to following generations.

Quilt patterns as codes were passed down the same way. It is interesting to note that in Africa the making of textiles was done by males; it was not until the slaves’ arrival in North America that this task fell to the females.

Relaying coded messages

The quilt patterns, used in a certain order, relayed messages to slaves preparing to escape. Each pattern represented a different meaning. Some of the most common patterns were “Monkey Wrench,” “Star,” “Crossroads” and “Wagon Wheel.”

Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill, seemingly to air, passed on the necessary information to slaves. As quilts hung out to air were a common sight on a plantation, neither the plantation owner nor the overseer would notice anything suspicious. It was all part of a day’ s work for the slaves.

No written proof

There is still controversy among historians and scholars over the quilt code theory and whether or not escaping slaves actually used codes concealed within quilt patterns to follow the escape routes of the Underground Railroad.

As oral histories leave no written record, there is no written proof that the codes in the quilt patterns actually existed. What remain are the stories passed down through the generations from the slaves themselves, and, in keeping with the code of secrecy, many of the stories were never told.

Quilt code images

Discover the background of some black and white quilt codes or print out and create your own quilt codes.

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