Slave Quilts in the United StatesSherry NatzkeNWTC 

Slave Quilts in the United StatesSherry NatzkeNWTC  The African American quilt is a cultural hybrid that enjoys encoding meaning through geometric patterns, abstract improvised designs, strip-piecing, bold, singing colors, and distinctive stitches. The African American quilt is a communicator, conveying heritage as it once displayed a means for slaves to flee the plantation and journey to freedom. Although the African American quilt appears to be an everyday bedcover, it is more. Raymond G. Dobard, a professor of art history at Howard University, contends that in the days of slavery, quilting had a role far greater than the pursuit of art. (Anonymous, 2004/2005)In the years before the Civil War began in 1861, the Underground Railroad helped more than 75,000 slaves reach freedom. The Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad, and it did not go underground. It was a secret system of pathways and trails that guided escaping slaves from Southern plantations to the Northern states and Canada.Members of the Underground Railroad were black and white, male and female, free citizens, slaves, and former slaves who had gained their freedom. Runaway slaves were called “passengers,” while those who guided them along the way were called “conductors.” “Stationmasters” were people who hid the runaways in their homes or other safe buildings called “stations.” Most slaves had never set foot off their plantations and knew little about the North or how to reach it. Because of this, signs, symbols, and codes were used to transmit important information to slaves planning to escape on the Underground Railroad. Common quilt patterns made up one of these codes. The quilts could be hung out to air without being noticed by the plantation owner, yet for slaves who knew the code, the quilt patterns told then how to plan and carry out their escape. The most important quilt patterns in the Underground Railroad code are: • The monkey wrench pattern alerted slaves to gather the tools and supplies they would need when they escaped.• The wagon wheel pattern told slaves to pack their belongings and provisions to help them survive their journey.• The tumbling blocks pattern announced that it was time to escape.• The bear’s paw pattern instructed runaways to follow the bear tracks through the mountains, staying away from roads.• The crossroads pattern directed escaping slaves to travel to Cleveland, Ohio, the major crossroads to Canada.• The log cabin pattern indicated stations where runaways were hidden along the way.• The shoofly pattern referred to the conductors who guided slaves north on the Underground Railroad.• The bow tie pattern told slaves to dress in better clothing and disguises so they would not stand out.• The flying geese pattern instructed runaways to follow the migrating geese north in spring.• The drunkard’s path pattern told escaping slaves to move in a crooked or zigzag path, avoiding major roads.• The star pattern advised runaways to use the stars and constellations as a map to locating the North Star, a guiding light to freedom. (Vaughan, 2001) Harriet Tubman, 1822 – 1913, is famous for her role in helping slaves to freedom. When, as a young child on a plantation in Eastern Maryland, Tubman tried to protect another slave, she suffered a head injury that led to sudden blackouts throughout her life. On her first escape, Tubman trekked through the woods at night, found shelter and aid from free Blacks and Quakers, and eventually reached freedom in Philadelphia to align with William Still and the Vigilance Committee. After hearing that her niece and children would soon be sold into slavery, Tubman arranged to meet them in Baltimore and usher them North to freedom. It was the first of some thirteen trips during which Tubman guided approximately 50 to 70 people to freedom. Tubman spoke often before anti-slavery gatherings detailing her experiences. She was never captured and went on to serve as a spy, scout, and nurse for the Union Army. When the government refused to give her a pension for her wartime service, Tubman sold vegetables and fruit door-to-door and lived on the proceeds from her biography. (, 2019) To understand the special role quilts may have played in the Underground Railroad, we first have to understand the life and times of the people who lived during the years the railroad was running, approximately 1830-1862. In 1829, transportation by railroad began in the United States. The term “Underground Railroad”” was coined shortly thereafter to refer to the organization of people who helped slaves escape. According to legend

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