Secret Codes to a New Life


Quilt1Close Up Quilt 1


Huong Trenh

Throughout my years as a student, I found that the topic of slavery was very intriguing. Learning about it in middle school and high school is completely different from learning about it in college. You learn just how gruesome the slaves were treated, how they were brought over to the Americas, the unfair amount of labor they had to do, and the struggles of trying to maintain a stable family as a slave.

The African diaspora began in 1441 and didn’t end until Brazil emancipated its slaves in 1888; even then the remaining effects of slavery still lingered on for African Americans. Within that time period, millions of Africans were transported from Africa to North America, South America, Europe, and other areas around the world. Their masters subjected them to unfair treatment, whether it was health care, food, or shelter. The thing I found most interesting while learning about slavery in Afram 101 was when we watched the film “Twelve Years A Slave”, there was a scene where the white owner was auctioning off the slaves and the buyers would do a full body inspection on them; I didn’t realize that they would be so thorough about it. Also, seeing the mother’s painful expression while being forced to leave her daughter really put into perspective how hard it must be to keep a family together during those times. However, the slaves did the best that they could do in order to keep their family ties intact.

Through the horrific times of slavery, slaves found different ways to resist back; my cultural artifact would be considered one of the many forms of resistance. I chose to do my cultural artifact on slave quilts and the many secret codes that are hidden in the quilt’s designs. I made a quilt when I was younger as a gift to my mom. The amount of time and effort that is put into making one is astounding, especially when you incorporate more intricate designs. Having made a quilt before, it sparked an interest in wanting to learn more about the quilts that were made during slavery and what their purpose was. Slaves learned to make quilts in order to have blankets to use because the slave owners hardly ever supplied the necessary resources needed for basic living. This was a form of subsistence production and was important for African Americans because as they learned this skillset, they were able to share it with others in the slave community. They learned something that was needed for survival (MJ, QZ: AB Worksheet Notes, October 2015).

Quilts were important during this time period because it played as one of the mechanisms for resisting against slavery – it assisted slaves in migrating the Underground Railroad. It also helped slaves get ready to escape to the North. The journey to freedom was not an easy one and with the secret codes hidden in the quilts, it made the task a little easier. There were various kinds of codes that were used; different symbols and signs would have distinct meanings to them. After doing some research, I was able to find some designs that were supposedly used during the time of slavery. Some of the more common ones were: Monkey Wrench, Wagon Wheel, Crossroads and [North] Star (“Black History Month”).

  • Monkey Wrench.jpg Monkey Wrench: “A signal to gather all the tools required for the fleeing slave’s journey, meaning the physical tools, as well as the mental and spiritual ones” (Underground Railroad Quilt Code).
  • Wagon Wheel.jpgWagon Wheel: “Meant for them to load the wagon, or prepare to board the wagon to begin the escape” (Quilt Code Patterns).
  • Crossroad Crossroads: “Referred to Cleveland, Ohio, an area offering several routes to freedom. It also signifies reaching a point where a person’s life will change, so one must be willing to go on” (Quilt Code Patterns).
  • North Star.jpg North Star: “A signal with two messages–one to prepare to escape and the other to follow the North Star to freedom in Canada. North was the direction of traffic on the Underground Railroad. This signal was often used in conjunction with the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, which contains a reference to the Big Dipper constellation. Two of the Big Dipper’s points lead to the North Star” (Underground Railroad Quilt Code).

For this blog assignment, I chose two different types of quilts because they are so different from each other; I thought it was only right to showcase both. Each of them has their own unique touch to it. Where one is strictly just made up of shapes, the other is designed with floral patterns with birds incorporated into the design as well; these were known as Album Quilts. The first one is a pieced quilt created by Ellen Parsons around 1850-1875 in Shelbyville, Tennessee. The pattern used on this quilt is called “Goose Tracks” – I was not able to find any information on what the designs mean but it is very similar in pattern with another code called “Bear’s Paw” which means “Follow a mountain trail, out of view, and then follow an actual bear’s trail which would lead to water and food” (Underground Railroad Quilt Code). This quilt was created during slavery. It was said that Mrs. Parsons hand picked the material she needed to make this quilt – she “planted and grew the cotton in her garden. She picked the cotton and spun it into thread. She wove the threads into cloth to make the lining for the quilt. She pieced and quilted it by hand” (Ellen Parsons’s Pieced Quilt). The only information on Mrs. Parsons is that she drowned in a river when she was on her horse and the saddle broke.

On a more cheerful note, there are also quilts that are made as gifts given to someone with high regards, The second quilt, covered with floral patterns and vibrant colors was one of the many Baltimore Album Quilts (a.k.a. friendship quilts). The maker of this quilt is unknown but it was made in 1847 and gifted to a Reverend Bernard Nadal. Reverend Nadal lived in Baltimore and was a pastor for a church around 1845 to 1846. In his earlier years, he apprenticed as a saddler before joining the ministry in 1835. The intricate designs and the typical Baltimore styles of floral patterns and bright colors showed that the quilter had a lot of respect for the Reverend. These types of quilts were extremely popular during the mid-nineteenth century (Rev. Nadal “Baltimore Album” Quilt). It was also common to have inked drawing or writings such poems, names, or dates on these quilts as well. Other designs that were incorporated into these Album Quilts were fruits, baskets, wreaths, and vases. So not all quilts were made to have secret codes in them; some were simply made to give to someone you respected very much or considered a good friend. These quilts were mainly used for decoration purposes or quilts for guest beds (Baltimore Album Quilt).

In regards to the second quilt discussed above, it connects to the second reason why I chose quilting as my cultural artifact. I enjoy arts and craft and being able to express yourself through your work. I believe quilting was a way that allowed the slaves to express themselves through the colors and designs of their quilts. Sometimes we do things that allow us to express our individuality and help us relieve some stress, and I believe quilting allowed slaves to be able to do that. It gave them the opportunity to strengthen relationships by giving these handmade gifts that take a lot of effort and time to finish to the people they value in their life. It also gave them a sense of purpose. If quilts were actually used to help slaves prepare their journey to freedom or assist them to safe houses, then the makers of the quilt can rest assured knowing they were able to help a fellow slave companion out. This was another reason why quilting was important to the time period. Where in slavery, the slaves have barely any control over their life. Quilting and putting in secret codes was something they did have control over without the masters finding, and they were able to help others out by it too. Quilting could also be used as a way to tell the history and stories of the slaves, and this was important because in the African traditions, they want to be able to pass down their stories to the later generations whether it was through oral communication or any other forms of communication (“Black History Month”).

There are still some controversies on whether these slave quilts actually have codes in them that helped slaves prepare their journey to the North and assisted them to the Underground Railroad. Nowhere is there proof that these codes actually exist, everything we have heard and learned about these mysterious codes are from word of mouth. Some say it’s to keep the real meaning of the codes a secret, and that many of the stories revolving slave quilts have yet to be told. I don’t think the significance of this product really changed over time or got any less significant. If it did, I think it’s in terms of how we view it. Quilting could’ve been important for slaves to have self-expression, something to keep them warm during the cold weather, and a form of resisting against slavery. Now in present time, the slave quilts could be a way for us to understand a little bit more about slavery and how they were able to use quilting as a coping mechanism during those challenging times. Nonetheless, I still think the idea that slaves were able to use secret codes in quilts to help them find their way to freedom is pretty neat, whether it’s true or not. At the end of the day though, we get to choose to believe what we want. I believe that there is some truth in these stories about the secret codes in slave quilts, and that it made the journey to freedom just a little easier.

N.d. 1850 – 1875 Ellen Parsons’s Pieced Quilt. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

N.d. 1847 Rev. Nadal’s “Baltimore Album” Quilt. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

“Black History Month.” Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Communications Branch. N.p., 22 Jan. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.

“Underground Railroad Quilt Code.” Owen Sound. City of Owen Sound, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <>.

Breneman, Judy Anne. “Baltimore Album Quilt: Elegant Sampler Quilts.” Baltimore Album Quilt: The Finest of Autograph Sampler Quilts. N.p., 2001. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.

“Quilt Code Patterns.” Quilt Blocks. N.p., 6 May 2004. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.

“Quilt Code Patterns.” Quilt Blocks. N.p., 6 May 2004. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.

Teacher Assistant Marcus Johnson, QZ: AB Worksheet Notes, October 2015


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