For some, quilts suggest family and comfort. To others, their visual imagery is considered a folk art form. Our story about quilts is almost as old as the history of America and stitched with mystery and controversy.
In 1994, African-American quilter Ozella McDaniel Williams revealed to historians Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dubard a quilt code used by enslaved men and women for navigating the Underground Railroad. Tobin and Dubard tell Ozella's account in the book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. The code has been passed on to Ozella's niece, Serena Wilson, and Wilson's daughter, Teresa R. Kemp, who is director of the Underground Railroad Quilt Code Museum and Cultural Center at Underground Atlanta.
Each quilt contained a specific code that conveyed important information to fugitive slaves in their flight to the next safe house on the Underground Railroad. The monkey wrench denoted it was time to gather tools required for the journey, the drunkard's path pattern served to remind freedom seekers to move in a zigzag to avoid capture, and the bear paw pattern indicated food and water sources.
Since the publication of Hidden in Plain View, historians and Underground Railroad experts have questioned the quilt code theory for its lack of corroborating evidence in either recorded historical documents or oral history.
Fact or fiction? You decide.
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