The Secret Language Of Quilting And The Underground Railroad

Anne French with her quilt. Photo by Sandy Robison

Moses go down in Egypt

Tell ole Pharo’ let my people go …

Humans and all creatures communicate in a variety of ways. We use language, we use body language, we use intonation and attitude. We use silence. We use music. A subtler way we communicate is through symbols. Symbols are things that take the place of something else in a meaningful way. In literature, of course, writing is rich with symbols and symbolism such as the scarlet letter A in one of America’s greatest novels, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, where the A in the beginning stands for “adulteress” and is meant as a condemnation of the book’s protagonist, Hester Prynne. Hester proves to be such a fine human being in her lifetime, however, that by book’s end, people think the letter A symbolizes Angel of Mercy and other kinder notions about the woman. Such is the nature of symbols — they change through time and use.

Historians and scholars have advanced the notion that during the years prior to the Civil War in this country, when slavery was still legal in some states — mostly the Deep South — another type of symbolism appeared that served a noble purpose. Many slaves never learned to read and write the English language in America though of course they had a treasury of their own rich language and culture from Africa. How could they know how to travel, where to travel, whom to trust on the arduous journey towards freedom? One way was the language of quilts, a special type of symbolic dialogue, that guided runaway slaves on their way to freedom through the perils of travel, darkness, hatred and hunger. As fugitive slaves travelled, they passed houses — sometimes other slave quarters — whereon hung quilts on porches or railings. There, hidden in plain sight, would be messages that served as advice, welcomings or warnings. The symbols told the story.

Quilts are homemade bedspreads or coverlets comprised of many layers of fabric sewn together artfully and creatively. Often quilts are the work of many hands. Thus by their very nature, quilting is a form of discourse. My Aunt Marian Lager belonged to a Jamestown Quilting Circle for 20 years or more where every week she sat with a circle of friends, chatting and sewing. It was one of her great joys. To her, quilting meant companionship, sharing, conversation, civility. It is, at its best, storytelling, a narrative through craft.

The art of quilting brings women together in an atmosphere of sharing and bonding. The squares of the quilts are hand sewn by each participant. Each square is sewn with loving care in special stitches that look as pretty as they are strong. Then each square is joined to other squares, often made by other people, to form a final quilt. The quilts have themes of color and meaning. According to The Quilt Index (, “tens of thousands” of quilt names exist, such as Morning Star, Goose and Goslings, Railroad Crossings, Puss in the Corner, Mosaic, and Crazy Quilt. These quilt patterns form connections between quilters and through generations; they are a dialogue between past and present.

In the era of darkness before slavery was ended in America, quilts may have been used to help steer people in need of refuge to safety north in Canada. Some reliable evidence suggests various quilt squares served as advice or warnings. One example is a zigzag pattern that reminded the viewer of the quilt not to travel in a straight line in order to make it harder for any followers to track them. Another example is the Shoo Fly pattern, which meant, “scatter in all directions” if danger appeared. Both of these patterns, among others, are evident in a children’s book titled “The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom” by Bettye Stroud.

One local quilter, Anne French, belonged to the Westfield Quilt Guild. A few years back, the WQG introduced a project where quilters picked one book and used the book’s information as a guide to create quilt squares and a patchwork of meaning. Anne and her quilting partner Joanna Adams selected the Stroud book. They read it cover to cover and, inspired by it, created a special quilt.

The book tells the story of a little slave girl named Hannah and her father, who flee a plantation to head north to freedom. As Hannah tells the story, she also narrates how quilt squares served as symbols to guide them along the way. People who helped slaves were called conductors and fugitives were called passengers along the Underground Railroad with various routes in America from South to North, many of which ran through our own county and nearby counties.

I asked Anne what drew her to this book and this project. She said, “to think people had to go through things like that … I’ve been fortunate in my own life. But slaves! – it was unreal how they treated.” Anne explained, each quilt block was coded, with meanings like “safe houses” or “unsafe houses,” which roads to take, which paths to avoid, for example. Each design offered clues along the freedom road.”

As Anne remarked, most of the people who hid fugitive slaves were white Northerners. “Makes me wonder why Northerners felt so differently,” Anne said. “People jeopardized their lives to help those who were virtual strangers because it was the right thing to do.” Anne and Joanna’s quilt hangs in the Fluvanna Library displayed with the book that inspired it. The library has many fine books about the underground railroad for children and adults to read.

According to the book Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Tobin and Dobard, quilts speak their own special language. “At first reading, one is struck by the imagery and poetic descriptions. But beneath the language lies a much deeper, much larger story, a story that reaches back to Africa and forward to the Carolinas, connecting African symbols to familiar quilt patterns, all tied together with the sounds of spirituals and the African American struggle to escape the bonds of slavery” (23). Some of the most common symbol squares are the monkey wrench, the wagon wheel, the bear’s paw, the crossroads, the log cabin, the shoofly, the bow ties, the double wedding rings and follow the stars, each of which conveys special meaning to those on a perilous journey. Each of these common quilt patterns told a special story to fugitive slaves.

As we reach back into our history, we find heroes and villains. Heroes are those who stand up courageously against evil; villains are those who use evil for their own gains. We know this by the time we leave kindergarten. The era of the Underground Railway is a time period when the right and wrong of the human condition, of human behavior, words and actions, thoughts and deeds, seem clear to us all, at least in retrospect. Slavery has so many variations — slavery of wages, slavery of spirit, slavery of body. In any type or form, it is a curse.

Imagine something simple and homespun as a quilt serving as a map to freedom for enslaved people, a map out of darkness and into the light. Imagine women sitting in the flickering firelight, stitching symbols into cloth, making meaning with their hands and minds, influencing history.