Blogs > Cliopatria > So Quilts Were Used as Secret Markers of the Underground Railroad?

Oct 28, 2005 9:25 pm

So Quilts Were Used as Secret Markers of the Underground Railroad?

There's been an interesting exchange at H-AmStdy and H-Slavery. A Communications professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, inquired for a Master's degree student about surviving evidence of the use of quilts as markers on the underground railroad in ante-bellum America. It's a notion that was given popular circulation in a book by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Doubleday, 1999). Subsequently, the notion has taken root in elementary and secondary curricula, on the internet, and in public memorials. We apparently even have a museum in Atlanta that claims to exhibit its work. It's appropriately located near Underground Atlanta, where tourists get fleeced in even worse causes.

Scholars have repeatedly debunked the notion. Reputable historians like David Blight and Paul Finkelman point out that in all their research in ante-bellum and post-bellum primary sources they've never come across reference to the use of quilts as underground railroad markers. There is no known source of reference to the notion prior to 1929, by which time virtually everyone who might have participated in the underground railroad was dead. Tobin and Dobard cited quilt patterns that are not even known to have existed in the ante-bellum period. Finkelman points out that if the underground railroad had been so substantial a phenomenon as its latter-day promoters sometimes claim, the border states of Delaware, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri would have been emptied of slaves by 1860. Tobin and Dobard claim African origins for quilt patterns that have no clear African origin, but, even if they had an African origin, what would that have to do with an underground railroad in the United States? The really interesting question, as one person noted, is why do we have a felt need to believe that quilts were used as markers on the underground railroad.

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