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Underground Quilts

During the years leading up to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad provided a path to freedom for hundreds of enslaved plantation workers in the Confederacy. But how did a fugitive slave saddled with the forced illiteracy imposed by many plantation owners learn of the stations along the route north, when to move or when to stay hidden, who was to be trusted and who to avoid?

One still controversial theory is that the quilts made by southern Blacks during slave times not only preserved the stories and symbols of their west African or Caribbean homelands but carried coded signals woven into their patterns. Draped over a front porch railing or hung on a wash line, such quilts would help escaped slaves find their way to the next station on the route or would indicate the quilt's owner was one of the Railroad's "station masters", providing food and shelter. The theory was first proposed in a 1999 book, "Hidden In Plain View", by art historian Raymond Dobard Jr. and Jacqueline Tobin, a college professor.

The Bear's Paw; "Stay on animal paths"

Examples of the quilted designs they identified were the Bear's Paw, warning escapees to only travel along animal pathways through forests and swamps and avoid human-made trails; the Log Cabin, a sign that a particular household would provide shelter and could be trusted; and the North Star, pointing the traveler toward that nighttime beacon and northward. A zig-zag Drunken Path, on the other hand, warned that slave hunters were nearby and avoidance maneuvers should be undertaken, while the Bow Tie suggested that the fugitive's ragged appearance was a dangerous giveaway and better, more disguising clothes were advisable.

The Log Cabin: "Food and shelter here"

Dobard's and Tobin's theory was based on the recollections of an elderly Black woman who claimed the oral tradition of coded quilts had been handed down in her family for generations; but the theory.has been much disputed, and even Dobard later admitted that his and Tobin's book was "informed conjecture, as opposed to a well-documented book with a wealth of evidence." Critics point out that elderly ex-slaves interviewed during the 1930's as part of a Works Progress Administration project never mentioned such a code, nor do they appear in the memoirs of such noted Underground Railroad figures as Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. One critic went so far as to dismiss the theory as "fake history."

The North Star: "safe to keep heading north"

But the theory has supporters who believe just as strongly that the quilt codes are real historical artifacts, and wonder why critics seek written evidence from slaves who were prevented from learning to read or write and, even if they were literate, would never have committed the codes to paper. As a corollary to such coded messages, they point out that the hymn "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", generally considered to be about a hereafter free of slavery, was understood by enslaved Blacks to be about escaping along the Underground Railroad, guided by secret symbols pointing the way to freedom.

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