The Underground Railway: Quilts

Over time some of the stories about the Railroad have become romantic adventures with elements of myth and legend, and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. (Freedom Roads, pg. ix)

One of those stories is that quilts were an important symbol guiding slaves to freedom. This has been the subject of several fictional accounts of the Railroad, including some picture books. The historical evidence is not very clear though. It makes a great story but is it true?

One of the difficulties is that the kind of evidence historians usually take as “good” evidence is often produced by people in power. We privilege written evidence and particularly official documents. This can mean that the perspectives of subordinated people are excluded from the histories that we tell and teach. And yet, the truth of history is not just the truth of the powerful. How do we uncover the histories of people who did not have access to these privileged forms for preserving their stories? In the case of things like slavery and the Underground Railroad, how do we uncover the histories that were kept secret for very good reasons?

As I was writing the more general post about teaching history, I thought that the story of the use of quilts by slaves and abolitionists on the Underground Railroad might make a good assignment. Asking a keen student interested in the topic to write a research paper on this question might provide a good challenge that would allow you to assess (or demonstrate in a portfolio) the ability to find evidence from a variety of sources, evaluate evidence, and draw appropriate conclusions. Perhaps it would come later in the high school curriculum, once you know that your student has a good grasp of the issues surrounding historical evidence and producing historical arguments and narratives.

The objectives of this project might be:

  • demonstrate an ability to evaluate historical evidence
  • demonstrate an ability to use evidence from several sources to support an argument
  • demonstrate an ability to draw appropriate conclusions from the available evidence
  • demonstrate an ability to write a coherent historical essay that addresses the limitations of the evidence and locates the main argument in a wider historical debate

The sources in Freedom Roads and the “people who bought this, also bought” feature on Amazon led me to a couple of promising resources. Hidden in Plain View by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobar draws on oral history along with other evidence to examine the possibility that slaves used an explicit quilt code to teach each other about routes and other aspects of escaping slavery to freedom. They raise issues about the collection of oral history evidence and the importance of trust. The numerous forewords look to provide some perspectives on the ways that different historians might approach the question. From the perspective of a historian who specializes in quilts, the introduction to Facts and Fabrications by Barbara Brackman is also interesting. She introduces some important ideas about the uses of history and the importance of symbolism in quilt designs, instructions for which form the rest of the book. She is very clear about the historical status of these patterns, though. Those she includes largely date from a later historical period.

I have requested both of these from my local library as I’m now curious about this question. If you were assigning this as a high school history project, further research in the library and using bibliographies of good general histories of the Underground Railroad or of slavery to seek further detail from their own sources could also form an important part of the project. In fact, this might be where Steph’s idea of grading contracts could become really useful. Not so much for the grade, but as a way of developing the learning objectives with the student. As the parent, your role is to guide the process to ensure that your student is taking on tasks that are sufficiently challenging for her level and to guard against taking on too much so that the whole experience is frustrating. Deciding on objectives and then agreeing a plan to meet the objectives might involve you going and finding resources to ensure that she can learn how to do the project well. Maybe add an objective:

  • Demonstrate an ability to use a range of library research methods and select appropriate resources

I am also in favour of using the skills of the librarian to help with this sort of thing. No matter how often you use a library, getting a refresher course from a librarian on search skills is almost always worthwhile. With an assignment like this one, the librarian could focus on electronic resources, and on more advanced search skills to really help your student develop the kinds of library research skills that she will need in university. Also, there might be interesting material in your library’s special collections or they might have information about the city archives or other local sources that would enable you to develop other history projects focused on using primary documents.

You know my position on grading a class of one, but it seems to me that an essay that was the product of this kind of project would be just the sort of thing that should be in a portfolio for college admission. If you need to make a transcript that has credits and things then this could be part of an American history course, or maybe of a course called something like “Selected topics in History” where your objectives were the general ones about developing historical skills and conceptual understanding assessed by maybe 2 projects like this.

I do sometimes worry that because my teaching experience is at the university level, I am expecting more of younger students than is reasonable. On the other hand, my colleagues and I found that our goals for the first year students were mainly to retrain them to think in this sort of way instead of just parroting back what they had read somewhat uncritically. These were students from good schools with good grades. And we had colleagues in other departments that thought we were nuts to demand the things we did of first year students (including grappling with the idea of the post-modern city) but we got some great work out of those students. So maybe there is an advantage in aiming high but having realistic expectations of what might be achieved.


2 thoughts on “The Underground Railway: Quilts

  1. I so wish my stepmom … the professor and folklorist … were alive. I would love to discuss this with her! 😦 I am fascinated with quilts and their history. I was disappointed when I recently read that the role of certain quilt blocks in the underground railroad may very well be myth.

    I’m bookmarking these 2 posts to read in more detail later. And you have got to stop adding interesting books to my wish list! 😀 😛


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