The Underground Railroad Quilt Code - Truth or Myth?

Images of Frederick Douglas, Harriett Tubman, Garrett Smith, The Liberator newspaper, door of Whitehouse Farm, and an auction sign from Library of Congress photograph. NPS Image.

The Sesquicentennial of the Civil War has also brought renewed interest in the Underground Railroad, and a talk this Saturday at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park will examine an intriguing question: "The Underground Railroad Quilt Code - Truth or Myth?"

Information about the event notes,

"The Underground Railroad (UGRR) has captured the imagination of the country, and stories of its use have been published and repeated in countless books and songs over the years. One associated story that has received much attention over the past decade has been the tale of the UGRR 'quilt code,' a means by which escaping slaves could 'read' quilts hung outside houses to find their way north to freedom.

This code was clearly described in the book Hidden in Plain View published in 1999 by Jacqueline Tobin and Dr. Raymond Dobard. In it, Tobin describes her encounters with Ozella Williams, an elderly African-American vendor in a Charleston market who approached Tobin with stories of the quilt code, supposedly handed down over generations to her by her family.

Since the book's publication, the 'quilt code' has become legend and is surrounded by controversy, with many scholars disputing its existence and the lack of evidence to support Williams' story.

Was the quilt code an actual 'map' to freedom as some claim, or simply a charming story created to sell more quilts?"

An intriguing question, and if you're interested in the subject and can make it to Cumberland Gap this Saturday, Dr. Alicestyne Turley of the Pan African Studies Department at the University of Louisville is giving a talk that promises to be interesting. Dr. Turley will "examine the quilt code and the controversies surrounding it," and then "let make up your mind for yourself."

The program, co-sponsored by the Friends of Cumberland Gap, begins at 1 pm on Saturday, February 26th at the park visitor center and is free and open to the public. The visitor center is located on U.S. Highway 25E just south of Middlesboro, Kentucky. Middlesboro is about 85 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee, and 130 miles form Lexington, Kentucky. You'll find driving directions on the park website.

Some Traveler readers may not know that the NPS is actively involved in a national effort to interpret the story of the Underground Railroad. Public Law 105-203, the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998, "directs the National Park Service to establish a program that tells the story of resistance against the institution of slavery in the United States through escape and flight."

An NPS website "Aboard the Underground Railroad" includes a map and list of sites associated with the Railroad.

The NPS has also produced Researching and Interpreting the Underground Railroad, which "includes a brief contextual statement about North American slavery, a review of historical scholarship about the Underground Railroad and related topics, suggestions for using a variety of sources to construct responsible and meaningful interpretations, and examples of how to use these sources and to document and interpret specific cases of Underground Railroad activity." A copy of the publication can be read on-line at this link.