'Hidden in Plain Sight': Myths of Slavery & Anti-Slavery

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Hoary myths about slavery in the American South survive, even as the year 2007 dawns across the world....

On H-Slavery, inquiries about the popular notion that slaves made quilts encoded with signals about the"underground railroad" appear with some regularity. In late 2005, a faculty member in Communications at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, inquired about it on behalf of an MA student."He's discovering an inherent problem with the project: the lack of primary research materials,"

The original quilts have by now disintegrated, and apparently there are very few first hand accounts of how quilts were used in practice. What I'm looking for, then, are references to quilt-use in popular literature. Do you know of any novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc, from the antebellum period that in some way mention quilts in association with the underground railroad or the abolition movement in general?

This faculty member was told -- in fairly clear terms -- that the quilt/code myth was just that – that the reason his student was having trouble finding primary sources was not that they had disintegrated but that they hadn't been used in that way. Yet, the UNLV faculty member, Donovan Conley, ignored the advice of historians, such as David Blight, and allowed his student, Theodore Ransaw, to perpetuate the quilt/code myth in a thesis,"Points of Contact: Nineteenth Century Visual Rhetoric of the Underground Railroad." Ransaw has also published a book called The Sexual Secrets of Cleopatra: The Wisdom of the Ancient Egyptians,"which asserts among other things that Viking culture came from Egypt, the Pope wears a pharaoh's hat, and that yoga and tai chi spread to China from Africa."

It isn't clear to me that public ownership of historic properties is any guarantee of historical integrity, if professors at public institutions foster and credential nonsense.

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Andrew S Ward - 1/3/2007

I was at a meeting with the Gee's Bend quilters where Mary Bendolph and her exhibit's manager were asked about this. Both expressed doubts that there ever were such quilts and seemed certain that there was no system of quilt signposts in the Underground Railway. I have never found evidence of them in any primary source regarding the Underground Railway, and it seems to me inconceivable that no-one would have mentioned them if they had been put to such use.