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‘Quilt Codes’ Helped Slaves Navigate the Underground Railroad to Freedom

African-American patchwork quilt with Underground Railroad “quilt code” patterns

It’s difficult to imagine the hardships that 19th century African American slaves endured traveling the Underground Railroad, risking their lives with hopes to one day be free. Of the many fascinating tactics they used along the way, the most visually striking is the secret codes that were sewn onto quilts and hung outside to give warning or tell them the area was safe.

“We’re standing in front of the Bear Paw Trail quilt,” said Teresa Kemp.

She is standing in front of an impressive quilt with blue squares and triangles formed together to produce shapes that look similar to bear paws scattered across a white background. That quilt is one of dozens in the exhibit that depicts secret codes used by slaves to help one another along the Underground Railroad.

“This quilt was used by escaping freedom seekers for people who have been captured and enslaved throughout the United States. They wanted to escape to freedom to Canada. My family used African patters and prints—signs and symbols—as maps and information that they used in Africa to communicate here so that they would not be caught, killed, punished, or brought back to slavery,” said Kemp.

Kemp’s own family was instrumental in making use of the quilts and also preserving their history. She is a graduate of West Virginia State University and ran a museum of her family’s history in Atlanta until 2007, when she took her exhibit on the road. She brought her collection of quilts to the Della Brown Taylor Hardman Art Gallery on West Virginia State University’s campus this weekend.

“This one is our oldest quilt. This is a silk log cabin quilt,” said Kemp as she explained another important quilt in her collection.

The quilt features what Kemp calls the red door code, which was an especially good sign for slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad.

“These quilts, you could hang them outside as if they were going to dry after you had clean them. If they could read they quilt they knew this house was safe to come to,” she said…

Read more: Dave Mistich, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

What people are saying

9 thoughts on “‘Quilt Codes’ Helped Slaves Navigate the Underground Railroad to Freedom

  1. Sue Reich says:

    For the life of me I cannot understand why NPR and academia continue to perpetrate this myth.

  2. How would slaves get silk to make a quilt? (Referring to the oldest quilt in the collection) And while you might hang a quilt out to dry-that would be during the day and the escaping slaves wouldn't be moving around in the day for fear of getting caught so how would they see the quilt? And if it was hung out at night-how would they see what color was in the center of the blocks? I could go on and on about the problems with this myth. Ms Kemp is out to make money from the gullible.

  3. Lynn Evans Miller says:

    American Quilt Study Group should be a driving force to stop this myth. Educate, educate, educate. We cannot stop!

  4. Willy Wonky says:

    Shame on anyone who spreads this highly romanticized, unsubstantiated myth. Cuesta Benberry is probably rolling over in her grave right now.

  5. Dear FB friends of mine. If you see this story posted on another page, please help to stop the Underground Railroad Quilt Myths that almost all true quilt experts have denounced as fiction. So sorry this story comes out of our state.

  6. Teri Klassen says:

    people love codes, and seeing the underdog win

  7. Tim Latimer says:

    It continues to amaze me that this mythology keeps being published as fact, it is a sad commentary on the news media and the world of publishing.

  8. Patricia Ninelives says:

    About 10 years ago, I wrote a 4,000 page essay disputing the "code," perhaps the only article of its kind at the time. It was followed by a 10 page article in Needlearts magazine and then a lengthy update in The Quilter magazine. I have seen a number of newspaper articles online that mention people who have given public programs to promote the code. I am unaware of any articles that were as comprehensive as mine to the point that one textbook on African-American history cites one of them Just sayin'

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