The ‘Secret Code’ Of The Underground Railroad

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, February 5, 2015
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“I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” —Harriet Tubman, on her work with the Underground Railroad

In A Nutshell

According to the popular story, slaves running north on the Underground Railroad were often sent secret messages through quilts. Conveniently and casually hung on a clothesline or over a railing, the pattern on the quilt would tell them valuable information, like whether or not it was safe to stop. Thing is, it hasn’t really been found to be true, and the earliest reference we have to the idea come from a 1999 book with a single source—a woman who, conveniently, sold quilts.

The Whole Bushel

If you’re a part of the Underground Railroad, responsible for the safety of slaves fleeing oppression in the South for freedom in the North, it seems like a pretty logical thing that you’d devise a way of relaying messages and information without raising the suspicion of slave-hunters, slave-owners, and nosy neighbors that might want to make a few bucks.

According to the story, these secret messages were embedded in the designs of handmade quilts that would be hung in windows or draped over a railing. Those that knew the code would recognize the patterns that meant someone was watching, or that it was going to be safe to try to escape, or that it was a good time to stay hidden for a bit.

Patterns have even been given names—the zigzag pattern that was supposed to tell people that they needed to throw pursuers off their trail became known as the Drunkard’s Path pattern, and the pattern that was supposed to indicate that it was almost time to make an escape was called the Monkey Wrench.

The whole code system was outlined in a 1999 book called Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad.

It’s a very cool idea, but there’s really not much to show that it was ever a thing.

The book recounts the family stories of one woman, named Ozalla McDaniel Williams. A retired quilt-maker herself, it was Williams who told the authors all about the secret codes that were built into quilts. That’s been the only source for anything of the sort, and most historians agree that there’s absolutely nothing to it.

But the myth has taken off, to such a degree that it’s making some people downright angry.

In 2007, New York City was planning a massive, $15.5-million project that was going to be paying tribute to speaker, abolitionist, and writer Frederick Douglass. An escaped slave himself, Douglass was going to be honored by the installation of a 2.5-meter (8 ft) statue that included a granite quilt. The quilt was going to be patterned with the secret codes and messages that designers thought Douglass would have relied on during his journey North. (If the codes had actually existed, that is.)

The book was elevated to something bizarrely loved, even being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It supporters seemed strangely willing to overlook the fact that there was no other historical evidence for the secret, coded language, and even the book’s authors have said that the whole thing has been blown pretty far out of proportion.

There have been no other supporting stories, no appropriately patterned quilts have ever been found that date back to the Civil War, and no songs that reference the phenomenon, either.

There are, however, a huge amount of modern-day books that have been written about it—including children’s books that highlight the idea of secret codes in quilts guiding slaves to freedom. In only a few short years, the whole concept has been firmly cemented into the idea of what was going on during the years of the Underground Railroad.

Ultimately, the statue of Douglass was redesigned, a step that historians have said went a long way in trying to undo what might become one of America’s next great historical myths.

Show Me The Proof

U.S. & World Report News: Were Quilts Used as Underground Railroad Maps?
NY Times: In Douglass Tribute, Slave Folklore and Fact Collide
Popular Patchwork: The Underground Railroad