Posted by: HouPE | 05/08/2013

Quilting in History: The Underground Railroad

Quilting has a rich history in America. Perry Public Library was thrilled to have Ms. Betty Rawls share a bit of this history with us! Ms. Rawls shared how quilts were used to relay information to slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad. Quilts would be made using specific blocks to prepare and guide them on their journey. There were quite a large variety of patterns and meanings.

Quilt Monkey WrenchMonkey Wrench

This indicated to slaves that it was time to gather the tools that they might need for their journey. These tools might be compasses for navigation, tools for building shelter or weapons for self defense.



Once beyond the mountains, slaves were to travel to the main crossroad, Cleveland, Ohio. Any quilt hung before this pattern would have given directions to get to Ohio.

Quilt pattern flying geeseFlying Geese

This is the pattern reminds slaves to travel north like the geese in spring and summer. Geese travel stopping at waterways to rest and eat. This is a path that would be beneficial to those seeking freedom as well.

quilt pattern tumbling blocksTumbling Blocks

The number of boxes on this block was used to let others know how many days they had to “box up” all of their belongings to prepare for escape.

 This is just a small sampling… There were blocks that indicated which locations would provide nice clothing. This would enable the person to better blend with those around them than they would have in slave’s clothing. Other blocks were used to show safe houses where someone could seek shelter. How fitting that the Drunkard’s Path quilt block served as a warning for those attempting to elude slave hunters?

If you’d like to learn more, consider checking out Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. Please feel free to stop by Perry Public Library and see the display quilt that Ms. Rawls has shared.


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