Freedom Quilt or Quilts to Freedom?

Quilt Blocks



The cultural artifact that I chose is an image with quilt blocks that were used to help slaves communicate about when, how, and where to escape to freedom. Some say these particular quilt blocks were used to create what is called the “Underground Freedom quilt” there have been many debates as to whether or not several quilts, one specific quilt, or quilts at all were used to help slaves escape during the Underground Railroad. Some say that there was one quilt used, others say each quilt consisted of one of the images, while others say that no quilts were used to help slaves to the Underground Railroad. Whether or not there was a quilt that was used during the Underground Railroad, we do know that quilts were used to help slaves escape in general. As discussed in class slaves would code information about freedom and escaping in quilts and songs.

Each of the blocks have a specific name and coded message according to Ozella Williams, starting from the top left to right, “The North Star” when slaves saw this block they knew to follow the North Star, the second is “The Wagon Wheel”, and it told slaves to either load a wagon or to prepare to boar a wagon to begin their escape. The “Drunkards Path” block told slaves to travel in a zig zag path as to avoid pursuers that were nearby. The “Crossroads” block is said to been referring to Cleveland, Ohio which was where several routes to freedom were offered. The “Bear Paw” told slaves to take a mountain trail where they were to follow a path made by bear tracks which would lead them to food and water. The next block is known as “Log Cabin” this particular block had a dual meaning, it was advice to seek shelter but it was also a symbol that was drawn on the ground to let slaves know that a particular person was safe to talk to. The “Shoofly” block was said to potentially identify nearby guides who were nice and could offer help. The “Monkey Wrench” told slaves to gather the tools they would need for the long journey; mentally and physically, so some of the things they would need were food and their memory. The next block is the “Hour Glass” which I was unable to find the meaning of, and the last block is “Flying Geese” which told slaves to follow the points in the direction they are facing on the block. (C. Greig. Quilt Blocks. 2004)

The reason I chose this particular artifact is because I found it really interesting how slaves used quilts to communicate about freedom and escaping. Also when I was researching quilts during slavery times this particular image caught my attention because it explains the meaning of each block. I mainly liked this particular artifact because it shows how creative and resourceful slaves had to be in order to convey a message. Also in class when we discussed slavery and resistance and we discussed how slaves would try to escape, I was really interested in how they used codes in song and quilts. So from the beginning it was something that had grasped my attention, I had thought about finding a song to use as my cultural artifact but as time went on I was more and more drawn to quilts and quilt codes instead. I believe part of the reason could be that I view quilting as an art because you are putting numerous pictures and creations together to create one big one. I myself do not quilt but I do really like artwork and I myself like to paint at time, so I think the artsy side of me is what really drew me to choosing this particular one.

I was unable to find the producer of the image I chose as I believe the image was just a regular image uploaded to the internet. I do not think the person that put together this particular image had a specific inspiration or connection to this topic when creating the image. However the individual who provided the names and meanings of each of the blocks represented in the image was a woman named Ozella Williams. Williams’s definitions and names of the blocks were what I used in the paragraphs above to describe each block. She was said to be an African American woman who sought to retell the stories that her mother told to her. These stories were about the “Underground Railroad quilt”; I put this in quotations because as I mentioned earlier although we know that slaves used quilt codes to get to freedom we do not know for sure if they created a quilt during the underground railroad. Her desire to pass on this knowledge of the Underground Railroad quilt along with the codes is what inspired her to share the information with others. (C. Greig. Quilt Blocks. 2004) however some historians do not agree with the testimony of Ozella Williams that slaves used a quilt during that time. Since there are not original quilts from then and since “there is no mention of it in the 19th century slave narratives.” (C. Greig. History of the Underground Railroad. 2004)

Quilt block codes were used during the 19th century prior to emancipation, going with the idea that these particular quilt blocks were used to help slaves get to the Underground Railroad, and knowing that Harriet Tubman escaped in 1849 I would guess that they were used around that time. During this time period slaves not only used quilts to get coded messages to one another, but song as well. For example, as discussed in lecture by Professor Pittman, the song Swing low Sweet Chariot was a coded song that slaves would use. This time period was significant to African Americans because it was a time where many African Americans were trying to run away and escape. It makes sense that they would use quilt blocks as codes to help one another escape considering that those who got caught had to endure severe punishment. Some of the punishments that slaves who were caught during that time trying to escape was; whipping, branding, and severing of the Achilles tendon. (Slavery and Resistance PowerPoint.)

The reason that quilt block coding was significant during this time was that it was one of the only ways African Americans could communicate with one another about escaping. If they were to just openly talk about escaping they would very easily get caught. Also many African Americans did not know how to read or write during that time because it was illegal for them to be taught those things. However, since they already knew how to quilt and quilting did not require reading or writing but rather just creating what appeared to be meaningless patterns they were able to communicate with one another. African American slaves during this time period were able to communicate with one another by “hanging the quilts out to dry” or at least that’s what they made it appear they were doing. Slaves would take one quilt at a time with one of the patterns on it and place it on a fence. The slave owners were not suspicious of this because it was a perfectly normal thing for quilts to be aired out like that.

I do not think that the significance of using quilts to tell stories and convey messages in general would have changed at all overtime. The reason being is because regardless of the time period or what may have been going on African Americans could have used quilts to tell numerous stories whether it be about gaining freedom, what slavery was like, biblical stories, folk tales, the list can go on. For example, one woman named Harriet Powers was a slave in Georgia, after she was freed she began to make quilts that told stories about the bible. (J. Breneman. Harriet Powers: A Freed Slave Tells Stories through Quilting. 2009) therefore using quilts as a means of telling stories will always have the same significance I believe no matter, but the significance of using quilt CODES I believe definitely changed overtime.

For instance, when African Americans were freed during the emancipation, they no longer had to communicate in code because they were free people. They were beginning to gain rights as citizens and since they were already free there was definitely no need to discuss escaping any longer. So during that time period the significance of quilts definitely would have changed from being used for coding to just being used to tell stories. After African Americans gained their freedom many southern states came up with black codes, which were laws that pertained to African Americans and it was a tactic they used to regain power and control over African Americans. For example in Slavery by Another Name, the Black Codes led to many African American males being arrested, which then led to convict leasing. Now during that time period I would imagine that using quilt codes to escape would be of little or no significance. The reason being that quilting was often done by women, and majority of the African Americans that were arrested and put to work were men so there would have been no one to make any quilts in the first place. Also I do not think that the men had any way of getting ahold of the materials needed to make quilts since they were in jail.

While my cultural artifact along with my blog is about quilt codes, quilts themselves also relate to what we have learned thus far in class. When thinking about how quilt codes relates to what I have learned in class, I immediately think about the Slavery and Slave Resistance lecture. During this lecture is when Professor Pittman discussed how slaves would go about escaping along with how hard it was for them to escape. Slaves had a hard time escaping because they were under constant surveillance and their masters often had the slaves work in groups and assigned set schedules. Having the slaves on a schedule and in groups made it easier for the owners to keep track of them. Also there were many slave codes during that time so slaves were not allowed to travel at night or in groups which also made it very difficult for slaves to escape.

With the slave codes in place, the constant surveillance, and lack of guns it was extremely hard for slaves to make a run for it. Also making a run for it meant having a plan, so if a slave were to plan an escape they would have to have some idea of where to go and what roads to avoid. Those who did make an attempt to escape faced the risk of being caught by patty rollers, and if they were caught they would be punished. Slaves were often hung in public in order to strike fear into the other slaves. All of these are contributing factors that lead to using codes. Codes through song and more importantly coded quilts were how some slaves were able to escape. By using coded quilts slaves were able to communicate with one another about which paths to take, which ones to avoid, and where save places were. This was very important because it allowed slaves to plan their escape as opposed to making a run for it with no idea or plan of where to go.

On the other hand quilts themselves were made by slaves and sold to their masters or by their masters. According to Slave Household Subsistence and Women’s Work one particular mistress allowed her slaves to sell several items at the Saturday markets. The slaves would sell “brooms, nails, fruits, vegetables, yarn, woolen cloth, rag carpets, quilts…” (Slave Household Subsistence and Women’s Work. Pg.153). According to the Slave Subsistence reading some mountain slave owners would allow their slaves to manufacture homemade items. The mountain slave households were permitted to share the items with their neighbors if they gave a portion of their earnings to their master’s. The females would often knit items, fabrics, clothing, and quilts. There is no substantial proof as to whether or not there was a freedom quilt, so we may never know if one was used or not to help slaves to the Underground Railroad. However we can be sure that quilts were used to get to freedom.


By: Sierra Brooks-Sothard


Breneman J. (2009) Harriet Powers: A Freed Slave Tells Stories through Quilting

Greig C. (2004) Quilt Blocks

Greig C. (2004) History of the Underground Railroad

Pittman L. (2015) Slavery and Resistance PowerPoint

Slave Household Subsistence and Women’s Work. Pg. 153-154


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