Unraveling the Fabric of Slave Quilt Codes in Historical Fiction Children’s Books



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Unraveling the Fabric of Slave Quilt Codes in Historical Fiction Children’s Books

by Breshaun-B. Joyner

University of New Mexico

INTRODUCTION

Studies go back as early as 1999 that state historical fiction is a growing genre of children’s literature and is being utilized as a pedagogical tool of literacy in the classroom (Nelson & Nelson, 1999). An inherent yet troublesome trait within this genre is whether a good story trumps historical truth and how that may lead to an incorrect understanding of a culture or event. In this paper I discuss propagating slave quilt codes (SQC) folklore of the Underground Railroad as truth in children’s historical fiction books. SQC are quilt block patterns that represent specific clues on how a slave can escape and make it to freedom safely. My purpose is not to debunk the SQC story that for there are credible sources that have presented compelling evidence confirming that SCQ never existed (Wright 2004, Wulfert 2004). I will demonstrate however that the seminal text and single source responsible for the creation of the SQC myth, served as inspiration for children’s books on the same subject thereby perpetuating the misrepresentation to a younger audience. I examined this solitary source known as Hidden in Plain View written by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Tobin (1999) and seven SQC historical fiction children’s picture books that spanned thirteen years of publications from 1992 – 2005. The children’s books were individually analyzed for content on how the SQC story was thematically employed, the use of illustrations, and to what degree the SQC was presented as fact. Collectively these books, Hidden in Plain View and articles used in this research were assessed to determine how and to what extent accuracy, authenticity, and aesthetics can define SCQ children’s pictures books as valid historical fiction.


HISTORICAL FICTION: THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY



The element of story has a profound impact on how one view and responds to the world around them. It can illuminate the experiences of people from different geographies and backgrounds and construct a bridge between the reader and the story leading to a greater understanding of self and others. “Through the medium of story, the texture and voice of a people can be recognized, understood and embraced. Through story, we can share the hopes and dreams, triumphs and tragedies, accomplishments and disappointments that signal our commonalities as humans while also allowing a view of our uniqueness and cultural pride” (Collier, 2000, p. 241). History is story. It is a collection of shared experiences told through various mediums throughout and about a period of time. Historical fiction is a narrative that illustrates those shared experiences with more creative and subjective expression. It is an expository relating an actual event or person but with artistic license. “The historian’s approach is necessarily broader, examining historical complexities in greater depth and using digressions and footnotes to qualify and explain. Novelists, on the other hand, forego lines that arrive finally, at resolutions often denied to history” (Brown, 1998). In other words, in historical fiction there is more freedom to creatively articulate and expound on the past. It translates history lived into history conveyed. Rudine Sims Bishop (2007) defines historical fiction as, “the genre in which authors set about to re-create a past era, often by placing fictional characters in the midst of some major historical event, such as a war, but sometimes just portraying what life would have been like for an ordinary person living in that past time and place” (p. 250). The reader peeks into how people lived during that time felt, believed and behaved because of and independent of a particular event thereby creating a link between the past and the reader.
This experience transcends a multitude of identities as all audiences of story, regardless of the medium, can find some sense of connection. People adopt several stances when they become engaged in story. They can just read or respond to what they read. They can listen to discussion that transpires from the text and question the content and ensuing conversations. When any of this occurs people, especially as students, create the base from which to begin critical and contemplative thinking (Metcalf-Turner & Smith, 1998). Historical fiction offers students opportunities to explore and experience history in ways that are accessible resulting in apposite text analysis. “Children can see themselves as an extension of a living past – part of the continuity of human existence. They also have an opportunity to study and evaluate human behavior in a context that is developmentally appropriate.” (Freeman & Levstik, 1988, p. 330) However, like beauty, history is in the eye of beholder. Details and ultimately truth differ depending on perspective. It is imperfect. It has limitations. Reality resides not so much in a series of events but the writer’s version of what occurred. Through literary genetics, historical fiction shares kinship with history and therefore inherits its flaws. “The problems associated with writing historical fiction are also our problems when we teach historical fiction, because they affect how we and our students respond to and interpret these novels. The problems involve matters of definition, the truth of historical fiction, the question of balance between historical details and fictional elements, the demand for authenticity and accuracy, and the issue of provenance” (Brown, 1998). Historical fiction on its face is an oxymoron. How can something be both a true event of the past (history) and false (fiction)? And how do we know which is which? What we accept about historical fiction is a belief that some element of the story is true. The stories told are based on a real-life person, people or events. The reader enters into a contract with the author to accept that the two parts of historical fiction, the true and the false, are like yin and yang. The conceptual duality of historical fiction plus the propensity to provoke strong emotional connections to students encourages a certain type of supposition that is important in developing a keen conception of history (Freeman & Levstik 1988, Levstik 1989, Rycki & Rosler 2009). “It can generate a response to history that is the scaffolding for mature historical understanding, for without the ability to empathize, to put oneself into the past, history can be a dry and barren ground for children” (Freeman & Levstik, 1988, p. 336). The narrative of the Underground Railroad told in historical fiction children’s books illustrates Freeman and Levstik’s argument. The stories and characters in these texts help to keep this story of American history alive in the consciousness of American youth because it presents authentic lives, typically young people’s lives that exist outside of a monochromatic, mono-experiential world. But regardless of the story if the premiere feature of the story is false yet portrayed as fact it is no longer historical fiction, it is just fiction.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, COLLECTIVE MEMORY, AND SLAVE QUILT CODES

The institution of slavery is a seminal piece of the African-American experience in this country as well as the foundation for numerous political, martial, social and cultural developments such as the Three-Fifth’s Compromise, Civil War, the 14th Amendment, Jim Crow laws and civil rights legislation. The Underground Railroad is an iconic feature of this history. It is comprised of people, plans, and props all acting in subversive concert to commit seditious action against the government, specifically the law of slavery. Much of historical fiction for children from the African-American perspective takes place during this time period (Sims Bishop, 2007). Historical fiction of this era is told from a multitude of perspectives: slaves who escaped, family left behind, people both black and white that helped fugitive slaves and those who attempted and sometimes succeeded in recapturing them. Because of these assorted angles on this history, the result is what James A. Delle (2008) calls collective memory. Collective memory is a cornucopia of documented facts, oral recollections, and interpretation of events, places and intentions. “In analyzing the Underground Railroad it may be best to consider it as a manifestation of collective memory preserved in written records, oral histories and archaeological remains (p. 64). This collective memory can be distilled into three distinct types: public memory, social memory and social myth. Public memory refers to what is authorized by a dominant official entity, like a government and manifested in public displays like memorials and museums. Social memory is remembrances that are generally accepted and upheld by a group of people while social myth constitutes recollections of what people believe to have occurred in but reality did not (Delle, 2008).


The Underground Railroad is a mixture of all of these types of memory sometimes resulting in ideological dissonance like in the case of slave quilt codes particularly found in the book Hidden in Plain View. This book has been widely used as a conclusive source on SQC. It “…has created a disturbing trend found in children’s books, maps, history projects, and art and craft projects that reinforces children’s belief in secret code quilt patterns” (Foley, 2007, 27). Tobin and Dobard’s work relies on a single voice for validation of the SQC. The notion of SQC chronicles the narrative of Ozella Williams, an African-American quilter from South Carolina. On the word of only Williams, an oral history of SQC was passed down through members of her family. None of her story is corroborated by other people in the area (including some of her own family) or other Underground Railroad historians. No physical evidence of quilts exists. Most notably of all the recorded slave narratives and interviews of former slaves conducted primarily from the end of the Civil War through the end of the 1930’s, not a single former slave mentioned a quilt or a series of quilts used as a means for escape. Williams does not state who created and coordinated the encoded quilt system or who made the quilts. The scholarly research in the book is also flawed. The book is based on a perceived fact (the SQC exist) then works backward attaching points of conjecture with a smattering of proven data to justify the validity of the original premise. “The book's poor scholarship was derided by historians from every discipline, who noted its claims were contradicted by everything known about quilts and the Underground

Railroad” (Fellner, 2006, p. 11). So in the absence of physical items or oral testimony as proof and in the presence of facts that discredit key elements of SQC, it is highly improbable if not impossible to substantiate any SQC claims, particularly any coming from Hidden in Plain View (Cummings 2004, Wright 2004, Wulfert 2004, Fellner 2006, Delle 2008). Because uncertainty is rife throughout Hidden in Plain View, every SQC historical fiction children’s book that refers to it as a source for inspiration is suspect. “The documentary record of the Underground Railroad is characterized by ambiguously worded letters and sensationalized recollections recorded years or even decades after the fact. Oral histories about escape and assisting those seeking their freedom are a rich source of material for Underground Railroad research, but are often difficult if not impossible to corroborate. The flight of freedom seekers did not leave distinctive archaeological signatures” (Delle, 2008, p. 64).


The Underground Railroad existed as a vehicle for liberation and the constant pursuit of freedom. As slavery was the law of the land, it was illegal to engage in any activity that would result in the emancipation of a slave. Therefore stealth was the only appropriate approach to achieve success and prevent reprisals. A systematic yet concealed structure emerged from an organic outpouring of shared motivations and means. Tobin and Dobard (1999) state, “By virtue of its covert nature, the Underground Railroad is also the story of codes and secrets involving cunning systems of visual and oral communication known only to those involved and reflecting the indomitable spirit of people’s resistance to slavery and the desire to be free” (p. 66). Code was the predominate instrument to secretly transmit escape and survival strategies employed across thousands of miles to a largely illiterate population who were legally prevented from being educated. “… the mythology of the Underground Railroad relates that the clandestine nature of the movement, coupled with the omnipresence of slave hunters and slave catchers, required the heroic use of secrecy. The secrecy element of the myth has led people to assert that various secret codes were operating to make the Underground Railroad work” (Delle, 2008, p. 72). Collective memory can tell us about language codes - conductors (free people) take a package (slave) to a station (safe house along the route to freedom); song codes – “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (use the North Star in the Big Dipper constellation as a guide to travel in a northerly direction towards freedom); and religious codes – Land of Canaan and the Promised Land of the Judeo-Christian biblical rhetoric were all substitutions for Canada and any location where a slave could live free. Tobin and Dobard (1996) add slave quilt codes to the canon of coded devices of the Underground Railroad.
Slave quilt codes supposedly were quilt block designs representing tips or directions for slaves contemplating escape such as when to prepare to leave, routes to travel and tactics to employ while a fugitive. These pictograms were sewn into quilt blocks then embedded in quilts displayed in an innocuous fashion for anyone to see but only those slaves and those assisting them in their escape knew the code and could understand its true purpose. There were ten quilt blocks or patterns. A quilt with a code directing a fugitive slave to a specific action was hung outside a house. This served as an elegant yet simple form of communication for escaping slaves in the area. It was not uncommon to see a quilt displayed in such a manner as this was the conventional way to properly air out or dry a recently laundered quilt (Tobin & Dobard, 1999). “The quilt functions to alter reality by providing information about a hiding place for weary fugitive slaves. For the dominant culture, a quilt hung on a porch gave it freshness, while the enslaved saw the quilt as a symbol of hope for life in freedom’s land. Freedom was within reach when the quilt was within sight” (Davis, 1998, p. 71). Upon seeing the quilt and deciphering its encoded message, slaves would then recall the code and follow the directions:

The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear’s paw trail to the crossroads. Once they got to the crossroads, they dug a log cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin bow ties and go to the cathedral church, get married, and exchange double wedding rings. Flying geese stay on the drunkard’s path and follow the stars. (Tobin & Dobard, 1999, p. 22, 23)


SQC patterns are listed above in italics. The code strung together in this story format was a mnemonic slaves used to commit to memory the meaning of each quilt pattern (Tobin & Dobard, 1999). However there are many flaws in this code that upon analysis ultimately proves the code’s fallacies. Most importantly, many of these flaws are contained in SQC historical fiction.

Slave Quilt Code Patternshttp://4.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvqm3aplhi/aaaaaaaaajo/kmvkn2mmfvm/s400/bearspaw.jpghttp://3.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvw6naploi/aaaaaaaaakg/ly0dfrp7fw0/s400/wagonwheel.jpghttp://2.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvn-xaplfi/aaaaaaaaajy/9nnkphazedi/s400/monkeywrench.jpg


Figure 1 Examples of the Slave Quilt Codes
http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvwknaplni/aaaaaaaaaky/yydr2b3dcqs/s400/shoefly.jpg http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvsjxaplji/aaaaaaaaaj4/fwcgqhdpuu8/s400/crossroads.jpg http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvuinaplli/aaaaaaaaaki/tscttgvlix4/s400/logcabin.jpg http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvpmxaplgi/aaaaaaaaajg/zdgr7biziie/s400/bowties.jpg http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvvdhaplmi/aaaaaaaaakq/s2jfmtwtylg/s400/northstar.jpg http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvrq3aplii/aaaaaaaaajw/j6syqugf4m0/s400/flyinggeese.jpg http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_63vjmbnlahi/sbvti3aplki/aaaaaaaaaka/yjctlm1qx3e/s400/drunkardspath.jpg

The first step of this research began quite by accident. When beginning to research children’s picture books about quilts, I decided to narrow my focus to books about SQC and came across an interview with Giles R. Wright, director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission. Wright repudiates the existence of SQC and excoriates Tobin and Dobard’s Hidden in Plain View. Intrigued by this new information I decided to read it. This interview led me down a rabbit hole of scholarly articles and related materials further discrediting Tobin and Dobard and SQC as a legitimate secret code used by slaves to escape indentured servitude. While the first part of Hidden in Plain View presents background on the similarities between African-American quilt designs and construction (including SQC patterns) with ancient African tribal textile designs and technique, the latter chapters beginning with chapter five, attempt to explain the meanings, origins, and applications of specific SQC. Certain phrases demonstrate how much the authors relied on the single testimony of South Carolina quilt maker Ozella Williams and the origin of SQC: “According to Ozella…”, “Ozella proposed…”, “Ozella told us…” etc. The lack of additional or credible proof corroborating Ms. William’s story is glaring. Furthermore, the authors offer little verification for their own scholarship independent of Williams’ narrative. In the Author’s Note, Dobard, an African-American art history professor, states, “We have found ourselves obliged to reverse conventional procedures, having to present a theory before finding a wealth of tangible evidence” (Tobin & Dobard, 1999, p.33) Chapter Three opens with, “Because of its imagery, Ozella’s Underground Railroad Quit Code lends itself to conjecture. Exactly how the code was used, we do not know. However, Ozella’s words and our research enable us to theorize.” (Tobin & Dobard, 1999, p. 69). What follows this statement is the basic structure and use of the SQC but the admission that the authors are not in full possession of facts immediately makes anything they say suspect. Moreover, phrases such as “We assumed…,” “We believe…”, “Most probably…”, “We surmise…” “…ample reason to suspect…” and similar expressions are liberally peppered throughout the entirety of the book.


METHODOLOGY, DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS

I analyzed two sets of texts: Hidden in Plain View and seven historical fiction picture books featuring SQC. With the picture books, I looked at whether the content presented SQC as a primary tool to drive the narrative or as a backdrop that included SQC among other methods as a means of escape along the Underground Railroad. I looked at literary elements of the picture books such as title, perspective of narrator, and imagery. I also examined to what extent the main character used SQC. Most of the books that use SQC as a principal premise typically employ a storyline formula of either a slave learning how to make a coded quilt or using the quilt as an aid in escape or both. All of these books treat quilts as juxtaposition points between narrative and imagery and safety and danger. In SQC children’s historical fiction, quilts serve as a focal point for these binaries which help to introduce difficult subjects to children. “In the case of picture books about slavery, the inter-workings of verbal and visual texts allow important opportunities to explore how images of the danger and violence that marked slavery are balanced with narrative techniques that shape, contain, and re-frame those representations for very young, potentially vulnerable readers” (Connolly, 2012, p.30). All of the SQC picture books researched for this article contain images of slaves on the auction block, slave children crying after being sold away from their parents, ferocious barking dogs in pursuit of runaway slaves, slaves traveling barefoot in the snow, slaves running out of food, and a constant feeling of fear while a fugitive. The quilts presented in the SQC stories act as a recognizable and comforting salve against these dark, scary, and unfamiliar images for children. “Through such various images of quilts, these picture books allow a means of teaching about slavery while simultaneously containing the violence of slavery in presentations to young children” (Connolly, 2012, p. 41). This is an important balance to reach when presenting provocative issues.


Data generated from examining these books yielded multiple findings. From an illustration angle, half of the books about SQC prominently used the quilt in more than just telling the story. Drawings of quilts or perhaps just a quilt pattern appeared on the front and back covers as well as the inside page before the title page. Two of the books feature a quilt motif on each page of the book while the remaining texts do not dominate the illustrations with SQC. Six of the seven books studied featured young female protagonists. A striking feature in four of these books is the relationship between the female protagonists and older female characters who served as a conduit between the past and present, the old and young, by passing on to the younger female valuable skills for success later in life. Five of the seven books were written in the first person which provides an intimate insight into the mind of a slave applying the SQC to successfully engage in or aid an escape. To this idea, main characters in four of the books surveyed use the SQC to escape while three books presented characters that facilitated the quilt to be used either by manufacturing or displaying. The most crucial aspect of the data breakdown was the failure of authors and illustrators to remain faithful to the accuracy of the SQC even though these codes are already problematic in its validity as a legitimate secret sign used in the Underground Railroad.

Six of the books presented both correct and incorrect applications of SQC while the seventh introduced a different take on the SQC altogether.

STITCH BY STITCH: SQC BOOK SUMMARIES

Before an analysis of the books used in this research is presented, below are brief plot summaries of each children historical fiction picture books. Please refer to the data box on page 13 for author, illustrator, publication date, and other relevant information like industry awards received.



  1. The Patchwork Path (2005) begins with Hannah, a young slave on a Georgia plantation. When she turned ten her mother taught her to stitch quilts but just not any quilt. Her mother also taught her the secret of SQC. “‘Each pattern holds a special meaning,’ Mama whispered. ‘Hannah this quilt will show you everything you need to know to run to freedom.’ She and Papa thought about freedom all the time. I dared to think about it, too, after mama taught me about the quilt patterns” (Stroud, 2005, p.2). Shortly after Hannah’s mother teaches her the secret quilt patterns, her sister is sold away from the family and her mother dies from grief soon afterwards. What gives Hannah comfort now is reciting the SQC mnemonic. Hannah and her father soon escape from the plantation and use the SQC to reach Canada.

  2. The visually stunning Show Way (2005) begins with Soonie’s great grandmother being sold away from her parents. All she has to take with her is some red thread, two needles and muslin. At the new plantation Big Mama serves as a surrogate mother to Soonie and teachers her quilt-making that will be passed on from Soonie to her daughter and from her daughter to her granddaughter and so on for the next four generations. Soonie’s ancestor Mathis takes the quilt patterns of moon and stars learned from her mother and grandmother to the next level:

And at night, she sewed stars

and moons and roads –

tiny patches of stars

and moons and roads.

Slaves whispered what no one was allowed to say:

That Mathis know how to make…

… a Show Way.

Came to her when they needed to talk;

came to her for the stories of brave people;

came to her for the patch pieces

Just before they disappeared into the night. (p. 11-13)



These Show Way quilts help slaves to escape to freedom. After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, , Show Way continues to tell the story of Soonie and Mathis’ family. Historical events like segregation in the South and Civil Rights movement are the backdrop to introduce each new family member until the reader eventually arrives at the story’s narrator, Soonie’s great, great granddaughter. The narrator is writing a story about her maternal ancestors and how making Show Way quilts was a family tradition. To the extent that the SQC has a set of rules that should be followed to maintain fidelity to the supposition, Show Way is the only book read in this study that does that consistently. Moreover, through Woodson’s lyrical text and illustrations by Hudson Talbott, Show Way retains the quilt motif beyond presenting accurate depictions of SQC.

  1. Like in the previous two books, The Secret to Freedom (2001) opens similarly with a mother or mother figure sitting with a younger female showing them how to sew or do some kind of domestic activity like shelling peas. These images immediately set up a family dynamic of an older female mentoring a younger female and passing down family practices or rituals. “Largely a woman’s craft, occupation, and art form, quilting provided not only domestic artifacts – as in blankets for the home – but also a means of developing community as women gathered to share materials, work and ideas” (Connolly, 2012, p. 30). In regards to shared SQC quilting, it also serves as teaching or passing on an important survival skill. In The Secret to Freedom, a young girl sits at the kitchen table of her Great Aunt Lucy shelling peas when she notices a tattered scrap of cloth on the wall. When she inquires about it, her aunt tells her a story of when she was a child during slavery. She was sold away from her parents, leaving her with only her brother who was frequently hired out to other plantations. Through his work, Albert learned about the Underground Railroad and came home one day with a large burlap bag full of quilts. He explained that each of the quilts has a secret meaning designed to help slaves escape. The two of them began to work in concert in disseminating the information about the SQC and putting out the appropriate quilt at the appropriate time for escaping slaves. After Albert is brutally whipped by the Overseer, Great Aunt Lucy encourages Albert to leave the plantation though declines to join him, citing the lame leg she was born with will slow them down. Before Albert leaves, Great Aunt Lucy gives him a quilt square depicting the North Star. She lives on at the plantation until emancipation yet several years she receives an envelope with the quilt square and a letter from Albert. They are reunited and family bonds are strengthened through the connection of this shared quilt square.

  2. Journey to Freedom (1994) does not employ the SQC in its plot to any great detail. However, there is a single illustrative panel that shows a SQC hanging over a railing. Though there is no discernible SQC pattern the accompanying text states that the fleeing slaves check different homes at dawn expressly to see a quilt with the color black in its pattern. This means that the home is safe. The protagonist, a young boy named Joshua, has escaped from slavery with his entire family. He and his travelling group know that the quilt they see indicates a secure shelter because they are travelling with Harriet Tubman who tells them the secret meaning of SQC. After passing safely through this shelter, Joshua, his family and Harriet Tubman continue on their journey enduring the snow and near frostbite before finally reaching Canada.

  3. Under the Quilt of Night (2002) opens with a three panel dark blue wash of several slaves frantically running through the woods at night. A large yellow moon is their only light that cast ominous shadows and heightens the suspense for readers. The text is sparse throughout the book but written as poems told by the unnamed young female protagonist detailing each part of the journey. Each title serves as a descriptor for what happens next in the story: Running, Waiting, Hiding, Traveling, Singing. The young girl is traveling with a small group of other runaway slaves. Thought she refers to these companions as people she loves, it is unclear as to whether or not they are family. While on the run at night the girl witness a woman exit a home with a quilt, place it over the fence and return inside. The quilt has a special Log Cabin pattern indicating that this is a safe house. This young girl takes control of her fate and initiates the steps that lead to her freedom. Her determination coupled with the trust she has put into the quilt code leads her to cautiously walk up to the house to knock on the door. Her faith is rewarded as she learns that indeed this is a station on the Underground Railroad. The woman with the quilt and her husband are conductors on the Underground Railroad and take the young girl and her companions inside for clean clothes, hot food, and a comfortable place to sleep. Their respite is short lived when they are awakened to learn that patrollers are looking for them and are close by. They begin their journey again to experience more near misses with slave catchers but eventually reach freedom.

  4. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (1993) is one of the most widely known children books about using quilts as a secret code in the Underground Railroad. It is also the first children’s book to explore this topic in depth. Clara is a twelve year old slave who was sold away from her mother and sent to work in the cotton fields on another plantation. Her surrogate mother, Aunt Rachel (another slave and no blood relation), takes pity on her and orchestrates a way for Clara to begin work in the Big House where she is taught to be a seamstress. Clara will be considered a valuable asset to the household in this position, offering some measure of protection from the harsh physical labor of field work. While in the Big House Clara becomes privy to hushed conversations about runaway slaves, Canada and the mysterious Underground Railroad. One particular conversation introduces her to the concept of a map and its importance in a successful escape. Intrigued by this idea Clara muses on how to create a durable yet surreptitious map that will aid slaves’ getaway. Her new found skills in sewing sparks an idea to create a quilt made of fabric and patterns that represent the geography surrounding the plantation and beyond. “Sometimes I had to wait to get the right kind of cloth – I had blue calico and flowered blue silk for creeks and rivers, and greens and blue greens for the fields, and white sheeting for roads. Missus liked to wear pink a lot, so Big House, the Quarters and finally the Big House at North Farm, they was all pink” (p. 20). Several months pass as Clara works on the quilt. Once it is complete she decides to escape the plantation to reunite with her mother. Buoyed by the knowledge of the surrounding area because of her quilt, Clara refuses to take the quilt with her and tells Aunt Sarah she wishes to leave it behind so other slaves can use it.

  5. The fantasy picture book Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992) follows Cassie Lightfoot on a journey to find her little brother after they have been separated after meeting Harriet Tubman. Tubman is the guide on a magical trip that takes Cassie through a day in the life of an escaped slave. They fly through the air searching for the Freedom Train which can appear sometimes as a hearse or a wagon – two ways slaves hid in transit in the real Underground Railroad. As Cassie finds herself in various situations along her journey, Ringgold deftly adds an air of danger by painting a lone white face hidden somewhere in the picture. She follows Harriet Tubman’s advice, often given as a disembodied voice, at different points along the Underground Railroad. This narrative device shows that Cassie is along relying on only the assistance of others and her own wit to survive. Cassie and her little brother ultimately meet again and say good bye to Harriet Tubman.

SLAVE QUILT CODE MASQUERADE MANIFESTED Analysis on the seven children’s picture books resulted in five main categories: SQC fidelity, flawed logic, single source curse, authenticity applied by association, and quilt prominence in illustrations.


Loyalty to a Lie

In regards to SQC fidelity, to the extent that the SQC has a set of rules that should be followed to maintain the supposition, there are several examples of authors and illustrators deviating from the SQC mnemonic. These inaccuracies wrapped within a dubious thesis further complicate the matter of SQC. Not only are SQC false and nonexistent but they are also a feature of certain children’s historical fiction. Some authors and illustrators present incorrect depictions or explanations of SQC making it that much more difficult to sort out truth from fiction. For example, in the Patchwork Path an illustration shows Hannah sleeping with a quilt that contains all of the various SCQ patterns. A problem with this image is that the SQC is ten separate quilts, each with an individual pattern. These quilts were also displayed one at a time depending on when it was appropriate to send the next message. “HIPV (Hidden in Plain View) says the quilts were first hung on fences in Charleston (South Carolina), then the slaves learned the coded message from each quilt when it was hung, presumably over a period of time, and then finally, once all of the quilts had been hung and the coded messages learned, the slaves ran away” (Wulfert, 2004, p.6). Hannah’s quilt in Patchwork Path does not follow those SQC parameters. Additional SQC fidelity issues continue to surface throughout the book. Hannah’s father tells her they will escape in two days so she should get out her mother’s Monkey Wrench quilt to announce to the rest of the slaves that they are leaving. Though Stroud now maintains fidelity to SQC in regards to displaying a single pattern quilt of Hannah’s mother, the Monkey Wrench pattern was not used (according to SQC directives) in the manner Hannah’s father explains to her. It was not a broadcast about the owner of the quilts fleeing but a public service announcement for slaves telling them it was a good time to begin to gather the tools (perhaps a knife, extra blankets and food) necessary for them to flee.


A central facet of SQC is that the quilt would be hung outside, presumably for proper laundering but in reality was a pictographic siren for escaping slaves. No one would question the harmless quilt on fence or porch railing. However, since slaves traveled at night, not only would slaves have difficulty seeing the quilt patterns in the dark and therefore properly conclude which pattern is which, a quilt set out to dry under the moonlight as opposed to the sun during the day, may arouse suspicion. “Imagine a slave, who remained hidden as much as possible to avoid capture, punishment, or death, running up the front porch steps of a stranger’s house to get a close look at the quilt. Imagine the time it took to search and see encoded messages in the quilt stitches, patterns, colors, and then note which way the motifs are pointing, in order to tell which way they were supposed to turn next…. It would be nearly impossible to see the idiosyncrasies of the quilt, much less the quilt itself, as they pass by, hidden in the deep brush or trees” (Wulfert, 2004, p. 2) Yet in Under the Quilt of Night, the escaped slaves see a quilt from their forest hiding place at night. The protagonist saw the pattern and recognized it. They witnessed the Underground Railroad conductor place the quilt outside at night to hang. The illustrations do not indicate any additional light that would illuminate the pattern. The reader knows it is night from the images as well as the text as the protagonist refers to hearing an owl, a nocturnal bird, in the distance. Another problem with how the SQC is depicted in this book is the center color of the Log Cabin pattern. The protagonist states that she knows this is a safe house because the center color is dark blue. A non-coded version of this pattern would have a red center. The SQC states however that the center of the Log Cabin pattern is black.
In Journey to Freedom this illustration of SQC goes against the accepted system in that it does not present the accurate pattern to indicate a house is safe. This would be the log cabin quilt block. The quilt illustrated is made up of a series of diamond patches. Furthermore, the SQC claims the mnemonic was known to slaves not just Underground Railroad conductors and other official personnel. A Journey to Freedom violates this by stating the escaped slaves in the story are only aware of the secret meaning of the quilt because Harriet Tubman who is traveling with them knows this information. Moreover, she knows this because of her role as a conductor. Only conductors and station masters knew the slave quilt code. This would be an illogical and inefficient method of disseminating vital information to numerous people. Given that slaves did not always travel with conductors, it does not make sense that only a select group of people associated with the Underground Railroad would have access to this information.
Sweet Clara presents an entirely different take on slave quilt codes and therefore does not maintain fidelity to SQC. While the SQC involves specific patterns, one pattern on each quilt, and all ten quilts complete the series of coded messages, Sweet Clara displays a quilt that does not have a discerning or repeating pattern nor is it part of a string of quilts containing pertinent information recognized by escaping slaves fortunate to know the meaning. Clara’s quilt serves only the slaves from the immediate area. The quilt is an aerial survey of routes leading off the plantation and in the direction of freedom. One must know that the map is embedded in order to read it. Without this knowledge, the quilt remains unremarkable, which is in concert with the idea behind hiding codes in the SQC, hence Clara’s quilt still maintains the construct of a hidden meaning, albeit not SQC specifically. Author Debra Hopkinson conceived of the idea of a map quilt after hearing a story and interviews on National Public Radio about a quilt exhibition.
Flawed Logic

The most damning evidence that proves SQC did not exist and is an element in children’s historical fiction is a variety of breaks in logic combined with historical facts. For example, in A Patchwork Path Hannah’s father tells her to put out the monkey wrench quilt. I have already noted that Hannah’s father intended use of the quilts does not square with SQC. However, even if it was used correctly according to SQC lore, the monkey wrench illustrates the flawed logic of SQC thereby casting doubt (Wright 2004). This tool was not used widely, particularly within the slave population until a few years before the Civil War and therefore is unlikely that it would have been included in any mnemonic phrasing because there was no strong connection between the tool and slaves. Another example of unsound reasoning is while on the run Hannah and her father look for bear tracks. The Bear’s Paw SQC pattern told slaves to search for and follow Bear tracks to find food (berries) and water. However this scene illustrates one of the primary problems with the validity of the SQC. Hannah and her father are escaping from Georgia. There were essentially two Underground Railroad corridors escaping slaves traveled. The western route was used primarily from slaves coming from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. They were headed to states in the Midwest such as Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana. Slaves coming from states along the Atlantic coastline like the Carolinas and Georgia typically traveled the coastline and wound up in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey then on to Canada (Still, 1872). The Bear’s Paw SQC tells slaves to follow bear tracks to find food and water. To follow the bears, slaves coming from states like Georgia (like Hannah and her father) would have to cross the Appalachian Mountains not take the coastal route. Yet if historically slaves from this region regularly traveled along the coast to make their escape, why would the SQC mnemonic include taking slaves into a direction that is inconsistent with the practice at the time?


Single Source

Hidden in Plain View is a source of inspiration for a number of the SQC books. For example, in the Author’s Note in The Secret to Freedom, Marcia Vaughn remarks how Hidden in Plain View was instrumental in writing the book. This is problematic because of a single source and inconclusive proof of SQC embedded in the scholarship of Hidden in Plain View. For example, Tobin and Dobard refer to blacksmiths as a possible conduit for slaves telling them about the code but as previously stated, the methodology in Hidden is poor at best, “We believe that the blacksmith was able to ‘talk’ to his community through his rhythmic hitting of hammer to anvil and through the sounds produced by the bellows. The blacksmith was probably a major source of information and an adept communicator. When ‘loaned out’ to other plantations, he used the opportunity to collect geographical information. His cleverness and importance were hidden under the guise of strenuous hard labor where sweat tempered metal. We suggest that the blacksmith was probably one of the masterminds who helped plan the escapes…” (emphasis mine, Tobin & Dobard, 1999, p. 87). The problem with the above paragraph is that it contains three phrases rooted in doubt. There is nothing that supports Tobin and Dobard’s claim. Yet Vaughn takes this information about blacksmiths and uses it to develop the character of Albert. Just like in Hidden, when Albert is loaned out to another plantation it is the blacksmith that shares the important SQC information and provides the quilts presumably with instructions for Albert to share the information to the rest of the slaves and orchestrate when the quilts will be displayed. Albert is instrumental in planning the escapes. However, because information regarding how blacksmiths may have been a part of SQC comes from Hidden and this book abounds with inaccuracies and speculation, the historical fiction element about blacksmiths contained in The Secret to Freedom is suspect.
Authentic by Association

Historical fiction novels include elements of fact and fiction to illustrate an actual event or person from the past. This makes it challenging to decipher what is real or not because when placed in context of actual events, what is not true or suspect becomes legitimatized. As Show Way runs through the family history of Soonie’s ancestors and descendants, it pairs important points of history relevant to African-Americans, notably the Civil Rights movement. This is illustrated by photographs and drawings of newspaper headlines, African-American protestors assaulted by White policemen, Colored Entrance Only signs, burning buses used for school desegregation quotes from African-American luminaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune and Langston Hughes. These photographs and drawings are represented as quilt block pieces sewn together illustrating a fabric of memoir. With this return to Delle’s (2008) collective memory theory, namely public memory and social myth, the pairing of historical fact with the fiction of SQC is troubling. It makes SQC authentic by association.

In Under the Quilt of Night, the defining moment in the young protagonist’s flight was when she saw the quilt pattern and chose to act upon the message hidden in the pattern. She relied on what she had been taught in reference to the pattern and as a result began the chain of events eventually leading to her final destination in Canada. Hopkinson includes an afterward stating that Under the Quilt of Night, “…mixes fact and folklore” (p. 31). She acknowledges a debate exists between those who believe the SQC were real and those who consider the story to be a social myth. However in the following paragraph in this section, Hopkinson asserts Delle’s social memory like hiding runaway slaves in secret compartments and false bottoms in the back of wagons and the hidden meaning behind songs like Follow the Drinking Gourd are all examples of uncontroverted covert activity involving escaping slaves. This avowal on the heels of admitting there is nothing conclusive about SQC supports that SQC serves as a legitimate example of slave rebellion and leaves the question wide open.

Journey to Freedom includes Harriet Tubman in this historical fiction picture book. Her presence lends a certain amount of credence to other elements in the book such as the SQC. When coupled with other Underground Railroad secret signs and codes that are widely accepted as fact based on both public memory and social memory (Delle, 2008) like hidden rooms that provide temporary sanctuary to escaping slaves further conjoins SQC to bona fide elements of Underground Railroad thereby further eroding the lines between what is true and not true.
Illustrative Proof

Each new scene in The Patchwork Path is punctuated by a visual of a different SQC pattern. What happens in each scene mirrors the message of the SQC. For example, in the Bear’s Paw section, “A little farther on, I found the way. ‘Look, Papa, there it is! There are the bear tracks – like on my quilt.’ We followed the bear’s paw trail to the valley below. I hoped we wouldn’t catch up to the bears. The tracks led us to water and an empty, safe cave to sleep in. Mama’s quilt patterns worked just fine” (Stroud, 2005, p. 16). The multi SQC patterned quilt Hannah keeps with her on her journey to freedom visually highlights the pattern the scene depicts.





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