Illinois Underground Railroad
Illinois Underground Railroad

The dilemma with the quilt codes

Over the past twenty years, a tremendous amount of interest has focused on the supposed use of coded messages in quilts as part of the work of the Underground Railroad.  This was particularly fostered through the publication of "Hidden in Plain View" in 1999.  Unfortunately, across the country, especially in elementary schools this unsubstaniated tradition is being spread.


Quilts are a remarkable part of our American folk craft and art, and in African American communities there have been strong historic traditions on the making and uses of quilts.  However, there is no historical basis for seeing quilts used as carrying messages for people escaping on the UGRR.  Extensive research has been done on this and there is simply no evidence that quilts were ever used to communicate with freedom seekers as they fled north. 


There is one Midwestern family tradition from a family whose ancestors were enslaved in Kentucky.  This tradition points to the use of guilts in relation to the UGRR.  Family and oral traditions are of great value and this family's story is uniquely theirs.  However, at this point, there is no 19th century historical evidence to support this locally-based tradition.  There are thousands of oral interviews and an enormous amount of other first-hand accouints from people in regard to their enslavement and search for freedom, and  none of these have any reference or mention of guilts.


Of course, quilts with UGRR themes can be useful tools for educating and visualizing the journeys, but there is no historical evidence they were ever used to provide messages to travelers. There are a variety of websites that provide documentation on this.  PLEASE help to dispel this non-historical and, in many ways, ANTI-historical idea.