The Underground Railroad Quilts Story

posted in: Art History, Art Story, Quilts | 0

I stumbled across the Underground Railroad Quilts Story last summer. It was during the time of demonstrations after the death of George Floyd. My son suggested that I connect with Black Artists on social media and listen to what they were saying and find some ways to support them. Scott is a break dancer with a deep appreciating of the history and culture that birthed hip hop music and dance. Break dancing came out of Hip Hop.

The Underground Railroad Quilts Story

The Trail I Followed to Discover the Meaning of the Underground Railroad Quilts

I found Phyllis Stephens a wonderful contemporary quilter whose work is like a painting. Following links, I happened upon a video of a lecture she had done. Phyllis mentioned the use of quilts in the Underground Railroad to communicate and help people leave the plantations. It was hooked.

With a little more research, I found a lecture by Regina Abernathy from Lakeland Community College in Ohio. Her lecture was about the history behind the quilts. Abernathy mentioned a book, Hidden in Plain View, A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, PhD. I ordered the book on amazon that evening. It is one of those books when you read it, it is hard to put down especially if you love art, culture, and history like I do.

Tobin’s Encounter

Author and historian Jacqueline Tobin through a serendipitous encounter with Ozella Williams, a Charleston Quiltmaker and vendor in the Old Market Building, first encountered the story of the Underground Railroad Quilts. After 3 years of research and trust building with Williams, Tobin was given the the oral history of the underground railroad quilts, with the instructions to, “write this down.” Surrounded by a pile of colorful quilts Tobin spent hours one afternoon with Williams taking every word of the story in.

There are critics who call the story a myth. Tobin’s contention is when you are given a story passed from generation to generation just like the making of quilts is passed on, then it is a topic worth studying and researching.

Tobin a contacted Raymond Dobard, an art history professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and well-known African American quilter to help her with her research. They pieced together as many of the facts they could uncover surrounding the story of the quilts.  

I found the book fascinating, but it does read like a book of art history. Since I am a reader of nonfiction, it was not a problem for me.

Tobin’s Research

In their research Tobin and Dobard looked at the Gullah people, descendants of Africans enslaved on the plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. They came from an area of West Africa where various means of visual language was used to communicate. Their ancestors used a visual language made with marks on cloth or knots in weavings. Making use of quilts to create a visual language in order to communicate information that was perilous for them should it be discovered, seems reasonable to me.

Today the story of the Underground Railroad Quilts helps us understand the fierce desire for freedom the African descendants had. They risked all to leave the plantations for the uncharted territory of the north.
Using what was at hand they prepared for the time of the escape. Why wouldn’t they draw from their heritage as they sought to leave the south and obtain freedom?

My digital art piece celebrates the story of this deep desire for freedom and a long tradition of black quilt makers who to this day pass on their knowledge and skills from one generation to another.

The Code

On May 11, 1996 Ozella Williams of Charleston South Carolina gave Jacqueline Tobin this code.

The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel towards Canada on a bear paw’s trail to the crossroads. Once they got to the crossroads they dug a log cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin bow ties and go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange double wedding rings. Flying geese stay on the drunkard’s path and follow the stars.

The Meaning of the Quilt Patterns Used in the Underground Railroad Quilts

The Underground Railroad Quilts Story
Monkey Wrench

The Monkey Wrench quilt was displayed to indicate it was time to gather all the tools they might need for the journey.

Wagon Wheel
Wagon Wheel

Wagon Wheel indicated you were to pack provisions for the trip, to pack as if they were packing for a journey in a wagon.

The Underground Railroad Quilts Story
Bear’s Paw

Bear’s Paw reminded the fugitives to follow the trail of the bears through the mountains because that would lead to food and water.


Crossroads according to Williams lies over the mountains. She identified Cleveland Ohio as the main crossroads.

The Underground Railroad Quilts Story
Log Cabin

Log Cabin quilts with a yellow center square represent a fireplace in a safe house. The cabin pattern was scribbled in the dirt to help escaping slave recognize who they could trust.


Shoofly represents a person who would help them escape.

Bow Tie

Bow Tie meant it was time to rid yourself of slave clothes and go into a church where they would be aided in the removal of their chains. Once they had new clothes on they could easily pass as freed slaves.

Flying Geese

Flying Geese indicates going north. Geese fly north in the spring and summer and this was the best time of year to leave.

Drunkard’s Path

The Drunkard’s Path taught the escaping slaves to not follow a straight path, but a staggered one.

North Star

The North Star was how they were to guild themselves through the mountains.

Tumbling Blocks

Tumbling Blocks meant it was time to escape.    

Tumbling Blocks

Broken Dishes I added to make twelve quilt blocks for the design. It was one of six extra quilts Williams mentioned.  

Biz News

Last night I went to the opening of TROISColors at the Gallery8680 in Frisco, TX where my digital watercolor texture Underground Railroad Quilt is displayed now until July 17th.

I will be taking a much needed summer break. I plan to post my next Blog on July 31st.

Thank you for being a part of my art journey and as always, Be Inspired! Ruth

The Underground Railroad Quilts Story

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