A Hard Road to Travel: the Hidden in Plain View Controversy and Historical Art
Presented by Amy V. Lindenberger
The Women's History Symposium at the Cyclorama Center
Gettysburg National Military Park
 April 3, 2005


There is a television commercial that is being shown at this time, that you may have noticed; it goes something like this:  A man enters his apartment; he sees his large, long-haired white cat walking on the counter. He gently nudges the cat, quietly telling the cat it needs to get down.  We watch him proceed to prepare a meal —  cutting vegetables, fixing dishes on the stove, pouring wine, and setting the table, complete with a vase of fresh flowers. Cut to a brief scene of his wife in the hallway, looking for her key.  Cut back to the kitchen scene where the cat has now jumped onto the stovetop, and is approaching a pan of what appears to be spaghetti sauce.  The man, interrupted in the act of chopping vegetables, turns to nudge the cat down from the stovetop.  Before he can reach the cat, however, the cat has overturned the pan of spaghetti sauce onto the floor.  Butcher knife still in hand, the man leans down to pluck the white cat from the spilled spaghetti sauce, lifting it by the scruff of the neck.  Cut now to the shocked expression on his wife’s face as she enters the apartment, only to see her husband holding a butcher knife in his left hand, her white cat by the scruff of its neck in his right hand, and a pool of something red on the floor. The man’s eyes meet his wife’s, he nervously shifts his gaze to the cat and then to the pool of red on the floor, and back to his wife in flustered silence. It’s obvious how this must appear to her.  The silent graphic at the close of the scene reads, “Don’t make assumptions.”

That’s sometimes how I’ve come to feel about one of my most recent works, Hard Road to Travel, which you see before you.  Last summer a professional art critic came to my Ohio studio to review my work.  After having looked at this piece for a full 10 seconds, she turned to me and very confidently asked, “You do know this is all wrong, don’t you?”  Needless to say, I bristled at this.  She wasn’t referring to the quality of the art; she was referring to my inclusion of a quilt in a drawing about slavery, apparently assuming that my use of these two elements together implied my unquestioning support of a theory presented in the book, Hidden in Plain View, a story about the existence of a possible quilt code as a tool for escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. While I do understand her impression, my private reaction, much as in the commercial mentioned, was, “Don’t make assumptions. Look beyond the obvious.  Dig a little deeper.” On the one hand, some historians might say, “If you wanted to avoid this obvious conclusion, you should have thought better of including the quilt in the image.” In other words, “You got what you deserve.” The only problem with that is, little did I know, when I read Hidden in Plain View as just a portion of my research for this piece, what a swirl of controversy I would be entering.

Before I get into a more complete discussion of the book and its theory, please allow me to give you a little background about myself, what I do, how I do it, and how I view it.  After having spent 15 years as a professional portrait artist, I made the decision to combine my lifelong passion for Civil War history with my need to create art. But since, as you’re well aware, the Civil War contains countless “stories” which might be told through art, I felt I needed to find a direction in order to get started.  I began by investigating what sort of Civil War-themed art was already available, and it quickly became apparent that the vast majority of it dealt with what I call  the “larger” dramas of nineteenth century life: the large-scale battle scenes, the well-known generals, the traditional “heroes” of the battlefield.  Those things are stirring and inspirational to all Civil War enthusiasts, and there are a good number of highly-skilled artists portraying them with accurate detail and powerful emotion.   But, in an attempt to make my own work more of a reflection of myself,  I began considering what, specifically, it was about this era that holds my interest. I realized that the elements that intrigued me most were the more human factors, perhaps in part because of my background in portraiture, but also because those were the elements which I felt I could best truly relate to.  And while Americans, including my own friends and family members, had been engaged in a variety of wars over the years, in our lifetimes they had never been on our own soil.  I was very interested in exploring what it would have been like to experience war at home — sometimes against members of your own family and in your own backyard.

My interest lay with the common soldier or ordinary American citizen, pulled from his or her peaceful and predictable way of life, and suddenly thrust into the chaos of war. I realized that most of life’s fabric consisted then, as it does today, of quieter, less obviously dramatic moments.  I felt that these moments -- the threads which run through the lives of all of us regardless of century and make us more fully human -- should not be overlooked or forgotten. And, because wars affect the entire community — not just the soldiers who fight the battles, but their families and others in society as well -- it was important to me to depict in my images wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and other members of 1860's society, along with those soldiers.

I decided I wanted to try to somehow get to know these people in their pre-war identities and gradually move through the various circumstances with them, forgetting as much as possible all of the history, discoveries and inventions that had taken place between their era and my own.  Finally, I determined to work through the war in a chronological fashion, taking events in the order in which they occurred, “experiencing” them as I might have, had I actually lived through them.

It is reported that the great illustrator, N. C. Wyeth, when hired to illustrate a story, would read the story once for understanding, to get a feel for its mood.  He would then re-read the story carefully, underlining or highlighting passages that reveal its essence. He would finally choose an important scene to illustrate — one that was not described in detail in the text.  My approach to depicting history is similar, particularly given that I am searching for those “smaller”, yet very meaningful truths revealed in the events.

In order to develop a context for each drawing, I begin by reading general histories of actual events within a given time frame.  When I happen upon a person, incident or pattern of incidents that intrigues me, I search for books and articles that focus directly on that topic. These “narrow focus” texts usually lead to the best sources of all: diaries, letters and memoirs of the very people who lived through the events, and who therefore have a very personal story to tell. But, during the time I’m involved in  research, I do much more than just read and take notes: I truly immerse myself in the process.  I imagine myself, with my own point of view and personality traits, attempting to deal with these very events.  I write extensively about my thoughts, feelings and questions in my journal.  I share my research with friends and family members, and ask for their input.  And I seek out historians and park rangers for input to try to test the validity of my perceptions. In fact, this is why, when someone tries to talk to me about some aspect of the war which occurred after whatever I’m researching at the time, I sometimes jokingly respond, “Wait.  We can’t talk about this; I’m only up to 1861.”  The research and drawing process is very time consuming, but I believe it helps me develop a camaraderie with the people I’m depicting — I know that for myself, I simply couldn’t proceed with my work with any confidence, without approaching it in this way.

But I should stop a moment and explain that I wish to have my work speak on several different levels. As an illustration of a moment in history, I want that history to be as accurate as I am realistically able to make it, and go to great lengths to learn all that I can about each subject I’m depicting. But more than simply an illustration of a particular moment in time, I want the image to be a reflection of my own life experiences and journey — something meaningful to me, something I truly “know” about and have experienced firsthand. And, on a larger scale, I want the image to contain something universal; a piece of “truth” which applies not only to the historical era I am depicting, but also to our own time and to all eras.


I began my series — which I have entitled Beyond the Battlefield -- in 1996, and have so far concentrated on the pre-war and early war period, up to and including the First Battle of Manassas (for you Southerners), or the First Battle of Bull Run (for those of the Northern persuasion).   I have produced works that focus on the war’s various impacts on soldiers, women, and children.  But in my attempt to represent the mood of many segments of American society during that period, I was next led to research African slavery and the Underground Railroad movement. While many of my images are very focused on a small moment in time, in my initial attempts to research and try to “understand” slavery and the Underground Railroad, it quickly became clear that these subjects were so complex that they could very easily constitute an entire sub-series themselves — and, perhaps they will, in time. As far as I am concerned, Hard Road to Travel certainly does not tell the whole story of either topic, but is a “first step”,  an exploration that opens doors to future work.

My quest for information on slavery began with reading, and listening to recorded excerpts from, firsthand accounts given by elderly former slaves in the 1930s to Works Progress Administration writers. These works can be found in several locations, including internet websites, but I referred most frequently to the book/tape set,  Remembering Slavery. I also did some rudimentary research into the lives and experiences of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and John Brown. In an effort to become familiar with the most widely-read slavery literature available to average Americans prior to the start of the Civil War, I read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as biographies of the author to understand her roots and motivations in creating the novel. The website affiliated with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center prior to its opening in 2004, was a very informative source of helpful information about the Underground Railroad. (The website has since changed, and does not appear to have the same depth of research sources.)  Then, in 2000, on a return trip from Tennessee which led me through Maysville, KY, I stopped at a small Underground Railroad museum, and it was there that I picked up a copy of the now famous, or perhaps infamous, book, Hidden in Plain View.  I put the book aside at that time, but as I proceeded with my research in 2003, read it with tremendous interest.

For those of you not familiar with the story contained in Hidden in Plain View (HIPV), here is a brief synopsis.  In 1994, Jacqueline Tobin, a teacher of writing and women’s studies at the University of Denver, travelled to Charleston, South Carolina to  research a story she planned to write on  sweet-grass baskets and the craftswomen who made them. While browsing the Old Market Building in Charleston, she happened upon African American quilter Ozella McDaniel Williams amid piles of beautiful handmade quilts. “Did you know that quilts were used by slaves to communicate on the Underground Railroad?”, Ms. Williams asked. Over several visits and years, with the admonition to “write this down”, Ms. Williams began to tell Ms. Tobin a story that had been passed along from generation to generation in her family. Sounding like a bit of mysterious poetry, the code is recited as follows:

 “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.”

The terms monkey wrench, wagon wheel, bear’s paw, crossroads, log cabin, shoofly, bow ties, flying geese, drunkard’s path, and star all refer to quilt patterns. (Note that while double wedding rings does refer to a modern-day quilt pattern, it was a pattern which was not in existence in the mid 1800's, and the authors of HIPV are unclear about its significance.  They believe it probably relates NOT to a pattern but perhaps rather to an activity — possibly as in breaking both the mental and physical bonds of slavery.)

Ms. Williams’ contention was that when the slaves were young, they were taught not only the patterns, but also the coded meanings contained in them, through the use of a sampler quilt.  To the average person observing such a quilting lesson, it would simply appear that a young slave was being taught a variety of quilt patterns for later use; no one would suspect that there was a different type of teaching going on under the surface. Ms. Williams went on to indicate that quilts bearing the individual patterns would then later be laid, one at a time, over a fence or windowsill, until the clue represented by the particular pattern was memorized. In her code many of the quilt pattern names were appropriated by the slaves on the plantation to be used as mnemonic devices; that is, to trigger memory, of clues they could use as they journeyed north. The “monkey wrench” design indicated that it was time for the slaves to gather their tools.  When the “wagon wheel” appeared, it was time to pack for the dangerous journey.  Colors, designs, and the types of knots used were all significant, Williams said.  Blue and white was a protective combination, a blessing for a long trip, for example. The spacing of knots might indicate a grid with a suggestion of distances. The dizzying array of all of the possible ways to interpret messages in the quilts created a multi-layered puzzle.  Though Ozella could provide the basics, it fell to Tobin to fill in the blanks and decipher what the full code might mean. During the process, she enlisted the help and advice of Dr. Raymond Dobard, a Howard University art history professor and well-known African American quilter.

So, HIPV, published in 1999, is the result of the collaborative effort of Ozella Williams, Jacqueline Tobin, and Dr. Raymond Dobard, to record this oral history and provide interpretations of its possible use and meanings. In Stitching Ideas into Patterns: Methodology in the Writing of Hidden in Plain View, a sub-section of the book categorized as  “author’s notes”, Dobard gives the following disclaimer:

“Based on my knowledge as a quilter/historian, Jacki’s expertise in women’s stories, and our combined research, we were able to formulate a theory of how this Quilt Code may have worked for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad.  Our interpretation of the code is base in part upon informed conjecture.  While we believe that our research and the piecing together of our findings present a strong viable case, we do not claim that our ‘deciphering’ of the code is infallible. We have written the book in a way that encourages questions.”

In comments Dr. Dobard has made since the publication of the book, during speaking engagements, he has gone on to suggest that the quilts be read as one might read poetry, not merely for the linear sense, but for connections evoked in phrases, or feelings that resonate through colliding syllables.  And, as in poetry, he has told audiences, meaning is not always to be conclusively deciphered. As for Ms. Tobin, she points out in defense of the book that she and Dobard “have lectured at most of the top universities and venues in the nation, including the Smithsonian, Emory, Howard, the University of Wyoming, etc., and to a one, all the scholars who have heard our lectures have come to us and stated that we were absolutely on the right track with this story.  If some of the specific interpretations we suggested are not totally accurate; the substance has not been challenged as not only possible, but likely. . .We are sorry that no one has taken us up on our offer to hold a panel discussion of the elements of this book.  We have continually asked for such. . .Our offer still stands. . . Dr. Dobard and I have never stated that we have all the answers regarding this code or its interpretation.  We have just tried to present the story and interpret it in light of the research we have done.  I remain honored that Ozella told her story to me and told me to ‘write it down.’ ”

Highly-esteemed St. Louis quilt historian, Cuesta Benberry, is the author of numerous texts on quilt history, but most importantly in this case, of a book entitled Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts (Kentucky Quilt Project, 1992). In her book, as well as in other sources, Benberry spoke of instances where theories about African American quilts were prematurely accepted as fact, resulting in what she has termed some “scholarship disasters”. But Benberry herself wrote a foreword to HIPV, in which she states, after having read Tobin’s and Dobard’s research, prior to their writing of the book: “By engaging in a vast amount of research, authors Tobin and Dobard have established a significant linkage between the Underground Railroad effort, escaping slaves, and the American patchwork quilt.” In a 1999 USA Today article, Benberry adds, “The oral testimony of this woman is going to generate a great deal of controversy because it is the custom of scholars to look askance at oral tradition, at anything that can’t be proved by the written word.  As with any kind of research, in the future there may be further clarification, but basically I think they got it right.”  After three years and a great deal of controversy, The Cincinnati Post reported in 2003 that, when asked whether she believed the story, Benberry replied, “I don’t know.  I’m still waiting for the weight of the evidence to tip the scales one way or the other.”

With the authors themselves claiming in the text that the “code” is a theory, based on “informed conjecture”, and that it is open to other possible interpretations, and a respected quilt historian stating her belief that “basically I think they got it right”, one might think that it would be accepted by the reading public as simply that: one African-American family’s oral history, offered up for public consideration. So why all the heated controversy?

While historians from every discipline have by now taken their shots at HIPV, one of the most outspoken has been historian Giles R. Wright, Director of the Afro-American History Program of the New Jersey Historical Commission, and a respected authority on the Underground Railroad (UGRR). In June 2001, he told the Camden County Historical Society that “(HIPV) greatly misrepresents the operation of the UGRR; it gives those who know very little about black American history in general and the UGRR in particular a distorted view of this form of slave protest. The UGRR, shrouded as it is already in many myths and legends, hardly needs another.  And as I encountered many who had read this book, all of whom believed its argument, I became convinced that the making of another UGRR myth was already under way. This critique seeks to help in reversing this process.” While Wright has many reasons why he rejects the central thesis in HIPV, they mostly revolve around the fact that the book is based on a single oral history, which is not corroborated by any documented source he has found. In fact, some of its conclusions are in direct contradiction with documented UGRR history. (As one example, fugitive slaves coming out of South Carolina who used the UGRR usually headed in a northeasterly direction and not towards Cleveland, referred to in the “crossroads” notation.)  In a 2004 interview with Kimberly Wulfert, PhD, conducted for antiquequiltdating.com, Giles reports: “Prior to HIPV’s publication, I had never heard of quilts being used by slaves to send coded messages to prospective UGRR runaways.  And since HIPV’s publication, I have come across nothing that supports the thesis put forth in this book.” In probably his most heated statement thus far, he concludes that same interview in this way:

“. . .I would like to level most of my criticism at Tobin, for it was she who received the secret code from Ozella McDaniel Williams and bears the major responsibility for putting it forth in the form of HIPV.  In so doing, I feel that she has evidenced little respect for the study of the African American past.  By this I mean that her treatment of Williams’ story — her uncritical acceptance of it, is in a way offensive and insulting to all who take black history seriously, who believe you have to be properly trained to write a book or essay in this field.  Tobin is bereft of training in African American history; teaching Women’s Studies hardly qualifies her to write about the Underground Railroad.  Since Tobin lacked expertise in the field of black history, she clearly lacked the capacity to adequately assess or evaluate the authenticity of the oral testimony she had received from Williams.  Tobin therefore would have been better served by turning to historians expert in black history for counsel on the plausibility of the folklore received from Williams.  Implicit in her failure to do this must be her thinking that anyone, whether possessing the proper credentials in African American history or not, can write about this discipline.  Would she have treated any other people’s history in such a way? . .. I feel strongly that Tobin and Dobard should cease dishonoring the precious heritage of the Underground Railroad and acknowledge that their claim. . .is simply untenable.”

So, what does Wright think was behind Ozella Williams’ relating of the “quilt code” to Jacqueline Tobin?  He finds it likely that Williams’ was “just having fun with her.”

William Arnett, founder of Tinwood Alliance, a nonprofit foundation for the support of African-American vernacular art, is owner of the majority of quilts shown in a recent exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art , entitled The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  He is also vehemently opposed to the encoded message theory, stating: “It should be debunked because it’s totally off. Now, the premise behind it is altogether accurate, in that within the broad traditions of the African-American South there are secret languages and codes, but that doesn’t mean that this specific example is true.  It’s just one of those unfortunate things that comes along and happens to fire the popular imagination.”

Another criticism of HIPV was levelled by Marsha MacDowell, the folk art curator at the Michigan Museum in East Lansing, MI. In a Detroit Free Press article dated February 18, 2003, MacDowell comments “. . .I’m a folklorist and I believe in people’s testimonies. But you have to collect a lot of stories to find patterns.  You can’t discern them based upon one individual family’s story.” As to the HIPV disclaimer of Dobard’s about the “code” being a theory based in part on “informed conjecture”, MacDowell makes the point that, “. . .it states that it’s a hypothesis over 30 pages in to the book.  Most people wouldn’t get that far. You end up with people accepting the Underground Railroad quilt code as if it was an established, common practice.  There’s no proof to that.”

Leigh Fellner, quilter with Hart Cottage Quilts, indicates that she has researched the ‘Quilt Code’ in depth since the publication of HIPV. I would certainly have to agree; on her website, hartcottagequilts.com, she has a frequently-updated treatise on the subject; a full 74 pages of information, if you can go by my old Canon printer’s standards. She would agree that one of HIPV’s primary problems doesn’t lie perhaps so much in the book itself but rather in the behavior of Dobard and Tobin since then: “. . .he, Tobin, and every other ‘Code’ proponent has presented it as historical fact.” Complicating the issue further, she goes on to say, is the following:

“. . .when HIPV was featured on Oprah Winfrey and Ozella’s relatives appeared on the TV program Simply Quilts, it quickly became a part of the pop culture already surrounding African-American quilts.  Eleanor Burns, a white publisher of quilt pattern books, issued one for an ‘Underground Railroad Sampler’.   Quilt shop owners marketed the book, quilt block kits, and classes based on the ‘Quilt Code’; white quilters, who comprise some 95% of the quilt market, found the story made them feel good (and perhaps connected to the right side of history).  School systems added. . .Ozella’s ‘Quilt Code’ to their Social Studies curricula, finding it an uncomplicated way to handle Black History Month.  Meanwhile they continued to ignore African-Americans’ documented historic accomplishments.”

Another sticking point is that Serena Wilson, Ozella’s niece, has, since the death of her aunt, toured the country giving presentations on the “quilt code”, and her version often conflicts with that her aunt gave Ms. Tobin. Consequently, Fellner seems to be of the opinion that the “code” reflected nothing more than a quaint merchandising device cooked up by Ms. Williams and perpetuated by others trying to sell their quilts to naive consumers.

So what are we to make of the premise of HIPV, when all is said and done?  Should we dismiss it completely, as some historians are asking us to do, since it cannot be proven?

When I first began reading HIPV, I must admit that I was very taken with the mystery and imagery of Ozella’s quilt code.  As I began planning Hard Road to Travel, I initially envisioned a very straightforward presentation of a slave, laying a quilt out for airing; a quilt which contained the “monkey wrench” pattern, the first pattern of the “code” as related by Ms. Williams.  However, contrary to Marsha

MacDowell’s statement -- that Dobard’s disclaimer that the quilt code theory is based in part on informed conjecture, is located more than 30 pages into the book and that most people wouldn’t get that far -- I did take immediate note of that statement. From that point on, the quilt code became for me, not an absolute proven fact, but a poetic bit of family history.  However, I reject Giles Wright’s contention that Ozella Williams was “just having fun with” Jacqueline Tobin in relating the code to her.  I believe it is more likely that Ozella related the oral history as clearly as she recalled it, and with all sincerity.  But oral family histories often contain misunderstandings and flawed memories. Is some portion of it true?  I believe it is very likely, particularly since other African-Americans in various parts of the country have reported learning similar oral family histories.  Since the information was not recorded in writing, perhaps as a protective measure, we may never know for sure.

Professional historians and educators probably have an obligation to treat such oral histories as folklore, not as historical fact.  Though historical accuracy is very important to me in my work, I am not a professional historian or educator; I am an artist interested in the exploration of concepts and meanings.  Rather than focus on the possible existence of a quilt code, I chose to use the quilt as a beautiful “canvas” for  recording the road the slaves had travelled thus far, a device to use to illustrate the story of both their past and present conditions.  I found that HIPV led me to many other sources, which provided a wealth of information about African textile patterns and symbols, about slave-made quilts, and about the roots and realities of slavery itself. Giles Wright himself has said, “I believe the book’s only contribution is to document that which we already knew: Afro-American quilts were greatly influenced by African textile designs and thus exemplify African cultural continuities found among black Americans.”  At this time I’d like to take a few minutes to explain how I interpreted this bit of history, as well as the sources and meanings of some of the imagery you will see upon closer viewing of the quilt in Hard Road to Travel.

African “roots” - tree roots growing down into quilt pattern

1. Decision to use quilt and monkey wrench pattern: legitimate antebellum quilt pattern dating back to 1850. Also, though the “quilt code” has not been proven as fact, I have a great respect for the sharing of oral family histories, and wish to remain open to the possibility that others will come forward to corroborate such information.

2. Red and white as predominant quilt colors: strong preference among West Africans.  Several theories, one is that these colors represent Shango, the Yoruba god of the storm.

3. Triangles: some evidence that in both African and Civil War America they represented prayer, a way of offering prayer or asking for protection.

4. Flat hand shapes: in Africa, hands are often used as a symbol for ancestral power.

5. Red squares: African American mojo, or “hand”, as in “helping hand”.

6. Blue and white: for the Mende and Ibo cultures, these colors are thought to be protective.

7. Changing patterns and color: like Kente cloth, this creates a visual rhythm and ensures no straight lines, pertinent to the African belief that evil travels in straight lines.

8. Striped fabric: similar to “Men’s Weave” of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Also,  the striped patterns I have employed contain the Nsibidi symbols for journey or voyage.

9. Dot patterns on blue: an additional pattern, but also reminiscent of Adire cloth of the Yoruba people.

Transition to slavery

10. Background fabrics change to orange with pattern depicting “flames”or tension: African American culture became a blend of African and Christian influences.  The changing fabric colors go from the blue of water to the orange of flames, recalling Isaiah 43:2: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”

11.  Abolition symbol: this image of a bound slave bearing the words “Free me from the oppression of man” appeared in “abolition quilts” and also was incorporated into a wide variety of commercial items during the antebellum period.

12.  Translucent hands, adult reaching for child: Harriet Beecher Stowe, in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had many quarrels with the concept of slavery, but chief among these was the fact that children were sold away from their parents.  The outstretched pairs of hands represent this concern.

13. Slave images: taken from actual daguerreotypes made in 1850 by J.T. Zealy, commissioned to document African slaves.  The woman’s image is especially compelling, as female slaves were routinely subjected to humiliation and stripped of their dignity by being made to strip to the waist as they were “inventoried” by potential owners.

14.  Slave ship graphics: engraving of a cross section of the slave ship Brookes, published in England in 1789.

Transition to freedom

15.  Flying geese pattern: flying geese represent migration north

16. Deep blue sky, sun coming up behind tree: dawn of a new day, representative of the future. I made the decision to have the slave’s back to this part of the image, symbolic of it representing the future she cannot see.

17. North Star: Follow the Drinking Gourd, popular slave escape song, told slaves to look for the “drinking gourd” (Big Dipper) which pointed to the North Star, a marker for slaves as they made their way north.

18.  Tree, shown in early leaf, representing Spring: the best time to begin an escape.

Also, represents the present (living tree itself), sending roots into the past, and growing indefinitely towards the future.  And symbolic of Jeremiah 17:7 - 8: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.  He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

In conclusion, I’d like to share a quote found on the first page of the Quilt Code section of Leigh Fellner’s Hart Cottage Quilts website (though unfortunately she doesn’t list the source -- perhaps it is her own):

“I believe it is better to tell the truth than a lie.

I believe it is better to be free than to be a slave.

And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant.”

In the book Inspired: the Breath of God, authors Joanna Laufer and Kenneth S. Lewis write: “It is important to distinguish between facts and truth.  Facts are things that we can prove and see, aspects of science, mathematics, certain events in our lives.  It is a fact that you painted a portrait of a man, that you gave birth to a girl, that you held your father’s hand as he was dying.  But truth is what we know, not necessarily what can be physically seen — that you were inspired when you painted, that this is who you love, or who you do not love, that something stirred you. . .”  With my work, I attempt to tell truths. With my research, I strive to know rather than to be ignorant, and I hope I have shared that goal with you today. 



Berlin, Ira, Marc Farreau, and Steven F. Miller, eds. Remembering Slavery.  New York: The New Press, 1998.

Dobard, Raymond G. Ph.D., and Jacqueline L. Tobin.  Hidden in Plain View.  New York, Doubleday, 1999.

Ferrero, Pat, Elaine Hedges and Julia Silber.  Hearts and Hands: The Influence of Women and Quilts in American Society.  San Francisco, Quilt Digest Press, 1987.

Fry, Gladys-Marie.  Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South.  New York, Dalton Books, 1990.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan Roll: the World the Slave Made.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Wahlman, Maude Southwell.  Signs and Symbols: African Images in Arican-American Quilts.  New York, in association with the Museum of American Folk Art, 1993.


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