The Knowledge Exchange – Quilts of the Underground Railroad
Articles, Blog

The Knowledge Exchange – Quilts of the Underground Railroad

August 9, 2019


I’m a novice quilter. I have been learning under
a fabulous woman named Eloise Canzeta. I call her my master quilter– my mentor. And I have been traveling with
her over the last six years assisting her as she gives
this Underground Railroad quilt presentation. She’s a young woman
of 77, and she has a fabulous sense of humor. And she had the
audacity to tell me that she was moving to
Birmingham, Alabama, and she’s going back
with her relatives so that she could teach
them a thing or two. So she’s left me here, and now
I am taking over where she off. So again, I’m asking
for prayer and I’m asking you to be patient
with me, all right? Anyway, my name is
Regina Abernathy, and I want you to welcome– I want to welcome you to Quilts
and the Underground Railroad. They had hidden messages
and hidden codes. This is a new part of
African-American history. And I want you to bear
with me and you can see how nervous I am, can’t you? All right, well,
let’s just begin. Quilts and the
Underground Railroad– hidden messages, hidden codes. It’s very interesting how
the Underground Railroad received its name. As you know, the
Underground Railroad was a complicated network
of interconnecting routes that allowed the slaves
to escape their masters. And one day, the
story goes, there was this slave who had
escaped the plantation and his master was
closely pursuing him. And he jumped into the
Ohio River and disappeared. Now the master, he pursued
him and he looked around. He was frantic because he didn’t
want him to drown, all right? So he looked and he looked and
he looked and the slave just disappeared. And it was said
that the master said to those who were
with him, it was as if he was taken away by a
train that ran under ground. And from that moment on,
this wonderful thing was called the Underground
Railroad, all right? Now, what will you learn
in this session today? You will learn things that you
may not have ever heard before. But you will learn that
Ohio, in particular, played a very, very important
part of the Underground Railroad. And it was important
that you understand that there are ways that
people speak to each other– even today, whereby we can be
in their presence and people having communications
with one another, and if you are not in the
loop as the young folks say, you don’t even know that
they are communicating. And that’s what’s going on with
the quilts of the Underground Railroad. They are messages and
conversations going on, and people didn’t even know
that they were communicating. Before we go on, are there
any quilters in the audience? There’s a quilter! All right. And may I ask you,
do any of your quilts have any significance? They do. They do. Give me an example of just one. I’ve made some baby quilts and
I always think of the child that I’m making
for when I’m making them– the design and colors. All right, and that’s very
important to understand– that quilters always have a
reason for making a quilt– always. And not only that, even after
years and years and years, when that quote is used
or if it’s passed on, that reason stays
with the quilt. And that is one of
the reasons I want people who are
non-quilters to understand that when we’re talking about
quilts of the Underground Railroad, they had meaning. And the meaning for the people
who knew the meaning, and they had meaning for the slaves– those who ran away
and those who did not. All right, now how many
of you have heard anything about the Underground Railroad? OK. Then at least we are
on the same track here. And what names come to mind when
you think about the Underground Railroad? Anybody? Harriet Tubman. Anybody else? John Brown. John Brown. OK. And the abolitionists have
to come to mind, all right? There were the abolitionists. Let us continue. Now what I’m going
to show you is that there are 10
major quilt patterns that we’re going to discuss. There were others, but these
were the major ones, all right? We’re only going to discuss 10. I am asking you to help me
spend no more than five minutes per square, all right? Because of course people
do have to go back to their jobs and whatever. But help me spend five minutes. Don’t let me keep rambling. All right, thank you very much. Now when we look
at this, we have to remember that the big
picture is we’re talking about escaping from slavery. There was always a
desire to escape. Now many people will
say, well, you know, if you had a good master,
that was all right. Well, you know,
not necessarily so. There is this innate desire
for everybody to be free. Everybody wants to have
their own autonomy. Everybody wants to
do it their way. Now think about having children. They have to grow
up, don’t they? We still want them
to do it our way. And what happens? They have to sooner or
later tell us, excuse me, I’m going on to
live my life my way. That’s that in
grained something that lets you know that everybody
wants, or has a desire, to be free. Now the plan for escape included
many, many, many methods. The most used method was
just an opportune time. If an opportune time– a circumstance occurred– where
someone saw, I can leave– that was when they
left, all right? Most people didn’t wait for
the Underground Railroad. Whenever the circumstances
were correct, they left. However, many of
them remembered what they learned from the quilts
and talking to one another about how to escape. All right. Now the quilting used
as a method for escape was orchestrated by
the house slaves. And when you study
black history, many people will try
to tell you that there was some type of jealousy
going on between the house slave and the field hand because
people assume that the house slave had it much easier. The house slave was the
individual who made sure that she made the quilts. She made everything
in the house, all right– the
dresses, the curtains, everything you can think of. But she also made the
quilts, all right? And therefore, the
house slaves came up with a method of creating quilts
that would be hung out to air. Now you and I know that when you
have quilts or anything else, there was a time we used to
hang things out on the line and beat them. Praise the Lord, all
that has passed, OK? And we used to do that. But right now,
well, back then they used to hang the
quilts out to air. And for those people
who aren’t quilters, what they would
do is look around for a common household or
common things that they would– pictures that they
would make into quilts, so that everybody would
understand what they were talking about, all right? So they use common items to
use as messages in the quilts. And each quilt– there
were 10 of them– were hung at the plantation. So I’m trying to be clear
that these quilts weren’t seen as they traveled on
the Underground Railroad. All these quilts were hung
out in sequential order so that the slaves would
learn them and memorize what the messages were
so that once they left, they had to remember what they
had learned from the quilts and use that as a way to escape. All right. Now– oral history. Does anybody know
what oral history is? What’s oral history? It is passing down information
from one generation to the next just by telling them
what has happened. That’s what we do in
our families, don’t we? We tell them about great
grandpa and great aunt whoever, and we pass that
down from generation to generation to generation. African-American history has
always been oral history, mainly because most
people in America thought we didn’t
have any history. So we just tell
ourselves our history. Now unfortunately, or
fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it– because there’s always
two sides to every story and there’s always the good
and the bad to every story, all right? But most Americans respect
written history, all right? African-American history was
collected, written, documented, and published in
textbooks at the beginning of the 20th century. However, it hasn’t been
until the last quarter of the 20th century
that these published books have been
allowed to even be in our schools or our colleges. But what you have
to understand is some of the history
of African-Americans is still oral. Now what I am going
to tell you is a lot of it is oral, all right? Now I also need you
understand that there are other people in
America who are still practicing oral history. Can anybody give me one example? Yes? What about the
immigrants who are just coming to the United States. Definitely. The immigrants who are
just coming to this country are passing along oral
history to their children. Anyone else? Native Americans? The Native Americans are still
passing along oral history. Now just because
we don’t know it doesn’t mean it’s not history. All right. This is a quilt square. Now I’m only showing
you a square, but what I want
you to recognize is this will be an entire quilt
made of all of these squares. And this is the picture
of a monkey wrench. A monkey wrench was
used to repair wagons or to make wagons. And so when the house
slave hung this quilt out, it was telling all of
the slaves to get ready. We are preparing to get ready. You have to decide who among you
wants to go on the Underground Railroad. Now one of the reasons they’re
telling them to get ready is because everybody can’t go. Some people are ill. You get run away if you’re ill. Some people are old. You can’t run away
if you’re old. Some people are afraid. You don’t need to do this if
you’re going to be too afraid. Some people are too young. Some people don’t want
to leave their parents. But what you need to know
is you have to decide– are you mentally prepared and
physically prepared to travel? Because the
Underground Railroad– someone is coming from
the Underground Railroad to get you. So now is your time
to sit and think, do you want to prepare to go
onto this wonderful journey? Now what you have to understand
is everything is mental. Even when we want to go to
college, it’s a mental thing. You know, I had to tell
one of my young folk, I cried all the way
through grad school, OK? It has to be mental. You have to fight
your way through. And this is what they are
telling these slaves– get ready to travel on
the Underground Railroad. This is hanging out to be dried. Now you have to also understand
that it’s hanging out, and so when the people
went to the field, they began to sing, all right? Let us break bread together. Anybody know that song? Sing it with me. I can do this aloud because
my brain just went out. Let us break bread
together on our knee. Come on– let us break
bread together on our knee. All right, now what is happening
is, when they are singing, that’s for those people
who did not see the quilt. It’s for those people
who didn’t see the quilt so they will know
that the quilt is out and we’re getting
ready to leave and you need to tell somebody else. And then, of course, when the
house slave will go into town and they see someone else’s
slave from another plantation, they might start singing so
that other slave would know– from another plantation–
to go back and sing, we’re about to leave on
the Underground Railroad. See who wants to go. So that’s how the
message was spread in plain view of everybody– by the monkey wrench. Get ready. Get yourself ready
mentally and physically. All right, come on. There we go. The next thing is they would
put the second quilt out. And the second quilt is
called the wagon wheel, which means we are going to leave
probably by wagon, all right? Probably by wagon. Now you have to understand that
when the slaves were brought from Africa, they
became artisans– they were blacksmiths, they were
carpenters, they were bakers, they were coach builders,
they were seamstress. They had jobs. The coach builder,
however, or the person who would build the
wagon would have to make sure that he built
a wagon, whereby where the individuals would sit– there would be a hidden
compartment under the seat. And the hidden
compartment was where they would hide some of the slaves. And so when they would
hide these slaves under the hidden
compartment, then they would take whatever
they were going to transport–
logs or bags of hay or whatever– you know I
don’t know what I’m talking about when I say bags of hay. Anyway, they would put these
up against the compartment that was hiding the slave. So even the master was sitting
above his slave, all right? And that was one of
the ways that they would transport slaves away
from the plantation, all right? So here we have a
wagon wheel letting them know that we will
probably be leaving by wagon. Or if you are not
leaving by wagon, recognize the time
is getting closer to when we will have
someone come and lead you on the Underground Railroad. This is the wagon wheel. So remember, outside
we have one quilt– it is the monkey wrench. And it is hung for a while
because we’re not talking about one day after the next day. You’ve got to give
time for people to get the message from
one plantation to the next, all right? So weeks would go by and then
she’d hang out the wagon wheel, all right? And also, another
song would be sung. And see if my brain
will get there– all right, it’s not
got there right now because I am so nervous. But anyway, the wagon
wheel is out there. And so they have to know
that this means traveling is about to take place. Who has made up their mind? Traveling is about
to take place. Who has made up their mind? Now that’s hung out for a
few weeks also, all right? And now we have to
tell you, once you’re out there, what are
you going to do? Remember, you’re
leaving with nothing. You have the clothes
on your back, and maybe a few pieces of fruit. And you are about
to be out there. Some of you will be out there
with two and three and four people. But sometimes only one
person is going to leave. You’re going to be
out there alone. What are you going to do? You must follow
the bear’s tracks. So this is a pattern
that bear’s claw. And they say, why the bear? Because the bear knows where
the food is, all right? And the bears– they
travel up above the people, and then they come down
where the water is. They know where
water is and they know where berries
are and they know where things are that you can
find to eat as you go along your way. So follow the
tracks of the bear. And so, remember, while
these are out, the slave who is going to run away– he, of course, is thinking
and trying to memorize– this is what I have to do. I have to try to find
out where is the bear– this is another issue– where is the bear’s path? And one of the things
that they were doing is following the
trails of the Indians. And see, the
American Indians were very helpful to the
African-American slaves. So they would also let
them follow their trails. So again, they’re
following the bear’s trail because the bear’s
trail leads to food and the bear’s trail
leads to water, all right? Any questions before
we go forward? All right. This is called the
drunkard’s path. This is called the
drunkards path. It’s hard to see on my computer. And I know you said
you just left the– and so, I brought you
one to pass around. This is the drunkard’s path. Would you pass
that around please? And what happens
here is you will note that people are saying,
have you ever watched a drunk walk? Anybody ever watch a drunk walk? You and I know that
a drunk is stumbling and he is moving one way and
then he goes another way. And there’s never
a straight path, but he gets to where he wants to
go unless he falls down, right? So that is what they’re saying,
look at how a drunkard behaves. He doesn’t go on
a straight path. Now remember, common sense
teaches us the best way to get anywhere is what–
through a straight path. That’s the easiest way to go. But if you do that, guess
what’s going to happen? You’re going to be caught. So what they are
telling the slaves is think like a drunkard. Go this way and
that way and make sure you do not go
in a straight path. Make sure that
you are traveling. And sometimes you’re going to
go backwards and up and around. You’re trying to confuse
the individual who is following you. So the message here is don’t
walk in a straight path. Zag along the path, all right? Go in to the water, all right? Make sure that you’re walking
in the water an awful lot because you are going
to have to make sure that the dogs can’t
track you because you have a scent on you, all right? So you have to make sure
you get to the water. You have to make sure
you go under the water because you have to
get rid of your scent. Then you have to make
sure that you zig and you zag and
you come back and– but whatever you do, do
not follow a straight path. So this quilt is hung
out for weeks also. I need you to hear
my point of the weeks because we are
giving people time. And you know and I know it
takes time to walk this trail. This is a trail that
people have to walk. Now I have to talk about myself. I’m gaining weight because
I don’t want to walk, OK? Just think about us. We get to a place like Lakeland. And I was complaining
this morning– I had to walk this far? OK. These individuals are walking. And that’s another
reason why we have to understand that they
have to ask themselves, are they physically
able to walk this path? All right, let us continue. Then there’s the bow tie– the bow tie. Now when you see the bow tie,
it looks like something else. Can anybody tell me
what else might you see when you see a bow tie? Hourglass? The hourglass. Now they don’t call it the
hourglass– why, I do not know. I would have called
it the hourglass because it’s talking
about the hour. You have to use your time wisely
if you’re going to travel. They have places,
the safe houses, approximately 12 hours apart. Approximately 12 hours
apart because that is about how much time
it’s going to take an average healthy man– I didn’t say an
average healthy woman– an average healthy man to walk
from one place to the other without being totally tired– without being totally
dehydrated or needing some help. So safe houses are
placed 12 hours apart. So they’re telling
these individuals you have to watch
your time because you need to get to the safe houses. Now remember, on this
journey, there are conductors. Now the conductors
are people who are going to lead the slaves
from one place to the other. And these conductors are
usually slaves or former slaves because people forget that some
slaves who were still slaves helped other people who
were trying to escape. And of course, they
were the individuals who would take them
along the route. All right. Then there were the passengers. And these passengers on
this Underground Railroad, of course, are the
fugitive slaves. And they were hid in barns
and boxes and cellars, inside walls, and under the
floors of the safe house owner’s houses. Now these were the
abolitionists who were really putting their lives on– more or less, they were
putting themselves in danger by helping slaves. But they were
building houses that would allow them to put
slaves in cellars or slaves in the walls or slaves in
their hidden compartment. They were even building– they
were helping with the wagons, OK, so that they could
have hidden compartment in the wagons. So all of these
things were happening. And when they got to the
safe houses, of course, these fugitives or
these runaway slaves would received fresh
clothing and food and they would receive
a place to sleep. They slept during the day
and they ran at night. And that’s very
important to understand. So we have all of these
people helping out. And so you have to understand
that these people are waiting for you so you have
to use your time wisely. You have to keep your
eyes open and you have to keep your
ears open and you have to know who you’re looking
for and who’s looking for you. All right. Anyway, the stations
or the safe houses were located in many
states, however few were located in the
south because there were few sympathizers in the south– in the deep south. All right. Now remember that the
slaves are sleeping during the day at a safe house,
and they are walking at night. And so, the quilter makes
a quilt of the North Star. And they remind them that you
must follow the North Star. You’re going to be
afraid and you’re going to find yourself
out here alone, but look up and
find the North Star and follow that North Star. Now they had a song, called
Follow the Drinking Gourd. And they would sing
that on the plantation. The drinking gourd
is another way of saying follow the North Star. So here we have
these individuals walking around the plantation,
singing these songs, making sure that they’re singing
and telling other individuals at other plantations
that next you need to follow the North Star. Now remember, this individual
who’s making these quilts– she’s asking permission
to hang these quilts out. She has to go and
ask her mistress, OK, it’s time to make sure
I hang some more quilts. Is it OK that I
hang this one out. And of course, her mistress
is saying, sure, go ahead. And so again, we have
a conversation going on between people and they don’t
know what the conversation is. But again, here we have make
sure you follow the North Star. And the people are told the
North Star hangs over Canada because there is a destination,
and the destination is Canada. And why not Ohio? Because we know that as
you cross the Ohio River, you’ve entered
Cincinnati, you’ve entered the Northwest Territory,
you’ve entered free territory. However, the Fugitive
Slave Act was passed. And therefore, even though
you had gotten across to the state of Ohio,
if a slave master wanted to catch you or pay
someone else to catch you– a bounty hunter– and bring
you back to the slave state– that was legal. So you weren’t
really safe in Ohio. So therefore, they began to
tell the slaves that the North Star hangs over Canada. If you do not want to always
be looking over your shoulder, get to Canada. All right. Now another thing that I would
like to bring up, I think, is the log cabin. The log cabin. The log cabin usually
had a piece of red fabric in the middle. And the piece of red
fabric was an indication that you’re going to
look for a safe house. You’re going to look
for a safe house. And they use this quilt
pattern of the log cabin because most of the time slaves
were living in log houses. And that was to remind
them that there was someone who’s going to help you. And what we have to
remember when we’re talking about the Underground
Railroad is we have a collection of people
who are helping one another– who are helping the slaves. And so they’re looking
for a safe house. And what they’re looking for
is not necessarily a red door, they’re looking for a light– a light that’s going to shine. And if there’s a light shining
in the middle of the morning or in the middle of the night,
and it’s coming from a house, that meant that
was a safe house. Now one of the greatest
stories is the safe house that you can still see today
across the river from Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. There was a gentleman
named Rankin, and he had a house that he
built on the top of a hill. And if you go there
today, you have to climb the steps to
the top of this hill. And on this hill
sits this house. And what he would do is he would
put a lantern in the window and it would burn
all night long. Now most people thought that
you had to climb all those steps to get to that ladder– I mean, to get to that house,
because it was so high. But what he had done is
build a tunnel to his house, so that when they
came across the river, they knew to go
into this tunnel. How they knew– I
cannot tell you. But they would get
to his house, and he would have clothing for
them and food for them. And there was a very, very
well-run abolitionist movement in Cincinnati, Ohio. And they would show
the individuals how to get to the next
safe house in Ohio and how to get to the
next safe house in Ohio. And they would more
or less assist them on their route on the
Underground Railroad. And here in Rankin’s house, of
course they would receive food and they would receive
clothing and they would receive instruction, all right? Now therefore, again,
they’re looking for the log cabin,
which is a safe house ran by abolitionists. Another thing– while they
are looking in the air– and they have to look
for the North Star. And when the morning comes, they
have to look to the animals. Notice we’ve looked to the bear. We’ve looked in the
air for the North Star. Now they are told
look at the geese. Always go in the direction
of the flying geese. Now they have left– usually they are leaving at the
beginning of spring, all right? So the geese are
returning to Ohio and they are returning
to the north. They’re saying, watch the geese. Follow the geese. Make sure that
you know that they migrate in a northerly pattern. So if you’re in the south, and
you don’t know where you are, just look to see where
the geese are going. Now isn’t it amazing that
our cultures long ago understood the animals? They understood that the
animals gave messages. And it’s one of the things
that we’ve kind of lost in this modern culture of ours. But when we study our
culture from long ago, we will note that every
culture understood the animals. And so, here they are told
look for the flying geese, and they will lead you north
along with the North Star. Now mind you, these again– I have to say this– these quilts are hanging
on the plantation. They are not off the plantation. It’s something that–
this message– you have to remember once you leave. You will not see
these quilts again on the Underground Railroad. All right. And then they hang out a
quilt called the crossroads. Guess where the crossroad is? People looking at me
like you do not know. The crossroad is
Cleveland, Ohio. Now the crossroad means you
have to make a real decision. Anybody been at a
crossroad in their life where you have to make a
real decision– should I do this or shouldn’t I do this? Do I want to go
to another level? Or will this other
level mean something that I know nothing about? Well, Cleveland
was the crossroad. Cleveland was the
crossroad because it meant that you had reached
the farthest end of America. Do you really want
to leave America? Can you just stay in Cleveland
and dodge the bounty hunters? Or are you going to go across
Lake Erie and go to Canada? This was the crossroad– Cleveland, Ohio. It gave you access to Canada. And there are people here in
Cleveland on the Underground Railroad who are willing to
ferry you over to Canada. Now you have to understand,
for those people who have been
downtown Cleveland, there’s the old stone church. The old stone church used
to be that black church. They cleaned it. I liked it when it was black. They cleaned it. But the old stone church
used to be a place that harbored fugitive slaves. And they would ring the
bell when you could come. And then they
would give you food and they would feed you
and allow you to rest up. And they would
prepare you to find someone who would ferry
you across to Canada if you wanted to go. Now if you didn’t
want to go, they would find you someone in
the Cleveland area, which would allow you to
get on your feet and begin making a
living in Cleveland. So here we have people at the
crossroads of their lives. If you go to Canada,
will you ever be able to come back
and see your family? If you go to Canada, you just
had to start a whole new life and maybe never look back. If you stay in Ohio, maybe
someone else will come up and you can help them. It’s a whole new life. So this is the quilt which
lets people understand, you’re going to look to get
to Cleveland– if you get that far, because remember,
some people stayed in Cincinnati, all right? Some people went to
Springfield, Ohio. Some people stopped in Columbus. So the idea is how
far do you want to go? Now you think about it. My children are going
all over the world– one’s in Portland. I’m saying, Portland? You know? And the other one’s in DC. And I’m saying, DC? I’m trying to keep my
daughter right here. Don’t go, don’t go. It’s a crossroads. Everybody has to
come to a crossroad. Even the slaves had
to make decisions. Because once you
make this decision, you may never be
able to come back. Because at this
time in history– and I’ll say at this
time in history– because again, history
is still in the making and we don’t know it all. We don’t know of
African-Americans who came back from Canada. So here we have people
in Cleveland, Ohio. And it’s important
to know Cleveland played a very, very important
role in the Underground Railroad. The abolitionists here, and
the former runaway slaves here, played a very important role
in the Underground Railroad. OK, the tumbling blocks. Now you can’t see this
one very well either. Now watch, I can’t find it. Here it is. When you look at
the tumbling block, you have to look
at it carefully, because there’s a
block at the top. There’s a block at
the top, all right? I’m going to pass
this one around also. There’s a block at the top. And it looks like
baby blocks, but it’s called the tumbling block. Because remember, you’re
still on the plantation, and more or less,
this is the quilt that’s going to be– this
is the last quilt, almost, that’s going to be aired out. And it’s a signal
that it’s time. You have to tumble
out of your bed or tumble out of your life or
it’s time to just roll on out because it’s time. Can you leave? Now you know and
I know, when you tumble you don’t know
where you’re going or how you’re going
to end up or when you’re going to stop rolling. And so this is to let you
know, this is not easy. It is not going to be
something that you can say, whoo, wasn’t that fun? Because you’ve tumble before. Thank god you’ve gotten up, OK? But more or less, tumbling is
like falling down and rolling over. And so they say, here we go. It’s about time, but
you’re going to tumble, you’re going to fall,
you’re going to roll over, you’re going to cry, you’re
going to miss people. This is the time,
but we’re leaving. This is not an easy journey. The tumbling block. It’s put out for
people as a signal that it’s time to escape. And either Harriet
Tubman is here or someone from the Underground
Railroad is in this vicinity. Are you ready to tumble
out of this into something new and different and hard? Now think about that because
I want you to understand that all while these quilts
are out, people are thinking, people are anxious,
people are wondering. Slaves are saying,
can I do this? The Underground Railroad
is not something that was an easy thing for anybody. It wasn’t easy for
the abolitionists, it wasn’t easy for the slaves
who were helping along the way, and it wasn’t easy
for the runaway. So when you’re
looking at this, you have to understand
that these were also called– this tumbling block
is also called baby blocks. But this is the time. It’s aired out to let them
know it’s time to escape. Harriet Tubman is here
or someone else is here. You have to get ready. All right, this is the
last quilt that’s put out. Now there were only
10 quilts, all right? We started with
the monkey wrench, we went to the wagon wheel, the
bear’s paw, the drunkards path, the bow tie or the hourglass,
the North Star, the log cabin, the flying geese, the
crossroads, the tumbling block, and now we’re at the shoe fly. The shoe fly is– it has two meanings– the
shoe fly is Harriet Tubman or someone of that caliber. This is the individual
who is going to show you how to get where you’re going. The shoe fly is Harriet Tubman. You are to meet her. Now I have to go back and
allow you to understand that in the evenings, when people
were supposed to be asleep, the slaves would gather
at the slave graveyard and discuss all of this– who’s leaving, how
you need to be quiet, how you need to pretend
like you know nothing. When someone says,
where is John? I don’t know. He was sleeping. I went to sleep and I
woke up and I don’t know. Didn’t he go to the field? So they have met time and time
again at the slave graveyard, and they discussed
all of these things. So the idea is, even
when you were a child, you were learning to be quiet. You know when we were younger,
we used to have these sayings– and that they’ve taken it to
Las Vegas– but it used to be, whatever happens in my
house stays in my house. You don’t go to school and tell
the teacher everything, right? That used to be what we taught
our children, all right? Now even when we are
discussing history, when they went to
the graveyards, they were taught
how to be quiet– to pretend like
you know nothing. But they were also
taught from a young age what these quilts meant. So when they were
hung out, everybody’s getting the message. So here we have the shoe fly. It means that Tubman
or someone is here. We’re leaving now. You will meet them. And they’ve been told
where they will meet them. This also has a second meaning. It means that once
you cross Lake Erie, and you are in Canada, you are
free to do things that you were never allowed to do in America. And one of the things that many
slaves look forward to doing is having the right
to have a wife, to have their own children,
and their own home. So one of the things
people did was they made sure that they
got themselves a wife and they went to the
church and got married. So shoe fly meant
that they were going to be able to be married like
everybody else in America, all right? So these were the 10
quilts that were hung out on the plantation. And these were the
codes that were taught to those who
were going to escape and to those who were
not going to escape. And we have to understand
that those who did not escape did their part by
going to the meetings and deciding who could escape
and keeping the secret– keeping the secret. And now we know that
there are codes– quilts were used as codes
to help people escape on the Underground Railroad. And I’m going to give you
some suggested reading if you are interested. Right now, the one that I really
would like for you to read is Hidden In Plain
View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the
Underground Railroad by J Tobin and R. Dobard. That is the one I
truly recommend. But as I finish, I would
like for you to also note– and I’m going to
pass it around– that the Underground Railroad
had many, many, many avenues throughout Ohio. I want you to just
look at how many ways people were traveling to
get through to Canada. And these places
in Ohio show you that there are trails
all throughout Ohio. Ohio was really known as
a place that was assisting on the Underground Railroad. Cincinnati was very
important, Yellow Springs was very important, and
Cleveland was very important on the Underground Railroad. And with that, I’d
just like to thank you for being so patient with me. And I was nervous. On behalf of the
Knowledge Exchange, I just want to say
thank you for coming. We really enjoyed this. If you have questions for
her at this time, please– would you have a few minutes to
take questions from the group? OK, wonderful. Yes? Do you have an idea of
how many slaves actually used the Underground Railroad
and how many did not? Well, they are saying that
approximately 300,000 slaves got to Canada. And so, that is
one of the reasons that they are saying
that the Civil War began. There were just so many
escaping to Canada. OK, if there were
300,000, some of those were able to get free without
the Underground Railroad. Definitely. So about what percent used
the Underground Railroad? To be honest, I can’t
be sure and I don’t want to say anything wrong, OK? But what they are
saying is that many of the slaves who did escape– they escaped–
especially in the south, they went into the
Indian territory and they began to
live with the Indians. Some of the slaves that
had escaped actually went back to help others escape. Is that right? Definitely. Definitely. Any other questions? Did any of the slaves
make any attempt to take families with
them after they escaped? Well, Harriet Tubman
is the only one that we really
know– she came back for all of her family and more. That is the one
that’s documented. But I’m sure there are others. OK? Any other questions? Yes? How large were the
groups usually? Were they all different
sizes when they did leave? They were all different
sizes because it was a decision you had to make. And, you know,
Harriet Tubman was known as an individual
who would shoot you if you decided to go back, all right? So that became part
of her reputation. If you’re going, you have
to make sure that you are– and that’s why
they’re saying, you have to make sure you
are mentally prepared. Because if you go back,
you can tell the secret of the Underground Railroad. Any other questions? Yes? Have you been to the National
Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, and do they
have. a quilt exhibit? Well, you know, the day
I went they were closed. And I had someone here from
Alabama who was dying to go. And we rode down and they forgot
to tell quite a few people at that time. But I’m going. I can’t speak about
the quilting part. Yes? I was interested in what
you said about the bounty hunters looking for the slaves. Were there a lot of
African-Americans here or did they really stand
out making them easier to spot as they came north? Well, as you know,
there were free blacks and then there were
runaway slaves. And free blacks
would always have to have their papers
on them, all right? So the idea that there weren’t
many African-Americans– and you have to also understand
that one of the reasons we became slaves– and
other people did not– because if you
will go back in history, the beginning of slavery
began with Europeans. Europeans were sent here
as indentured servants. And what would happen
is, after seven years, they were supposed
to be let free. But some owners would not
own up to their agreements. So the indentured slaves– European Americans–
would walk away and they could blend
into another situation. And then they tried to
enslave the Native Americans. The Native Americans
sat down and died. Now that’s a story that
really needs to be told. Some of them refused to work. They would die first. So the last group were
the African-Americans because when they ran away,
if you were from Africa, you stood out. Where could you run? You couldn’t blend in anywhere. So that is one of the reasons
we became the slaves of America. It was hard to blend in. Any other questions? Yes? Were these quilts made locally? I can’t hear you. Were these quilts made locally? These are my quilts. I’m working to learn. I had a mentor. She has the audacity to be
leaving me going to Alabama. She’s 77 years young. And these are my
quilts and they’re made from African fabric. And what we’re doing– or
I’m doing more or less– is just quilts for
my family, all right? And the first one in
black and white is– she goes to the market. And it’s the– the
fabric is from Ghana. And the second one
is a collection of fabric from Ghana,
and more or less, is all different
types of symbols. And I wanted to put the symbols
from Africa on my daughter’s quilt. She took it to
college and she told me, bring her quilt back. This is my daughter’s quilt. And
she went to Harvard University and liked the blue, so I got
blue and purple and yellow and put it all in there. And I have a couple of other
quilts behind those two, but there was no
where to hang them. But more or less, I’m a
novice at quilt making. And hopefully I’ll get better. OK, any other questions? Well, I thank you, and I
just appreciate you coming.

13 Comments

  • Reply Beth Jones February 23, 2016 at 5:49 am

    Excellent information

  • Reply Gods Daughter September 1, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    log cabin pattern was my first quilt I ever made

  • Reply Leanora Mims September 11, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Ms. Abernathy reminds me so much of my sister. So smart. Loved her lecture and has posted it on facebook. I use this for my historical quilting class.

  • Reply Chrissie 1950 January 24, 2017 at 1:44 am

    I Really enjoyed this lecture , Makes me really sad about those poor people God Bless them all

  • Reply 0rbs26x February 6, 2017 at 3:42 am

    I loved your lecture. I've been quilting for ten years. I call it my winter hobby. I have often passed up the "traditional blocks" attempting newer patterns but not anymore.

  • Reply Nancy Rudy April 10, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    Very interesting – would love to learn more

  • Reply afrogypsy mermaid goddess June 17, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    this was such a good lesson I enjoyed it so much

  • Reply Bill Volckening September 19, 2017 at 11:56 am

    A little knowledge of the history of quilts and textiles in America would go a long way. The repeat block style quilt did not become popular in America until the middle 19th century. Several of the block designs in the discussion did not emerge until the turn of the century, 1890-1910 period. Pattern naming was a trend that began with the Colonial Revival, when mass media began to publish quilt patterns and their designers assigned names as part of the marketing. All of these historical tidbits reveal authenticity problems with tales of quilts and the Underground Railroad. These stories are really more like urban legend. The presence of quilts, or lack thereof, is the ultimate quilt mythology lie detector test. Unfortunately, there are no examples of most of these quilt block patterns made before abolition. Many of the patterns barely existed before 1900.

    So, yes, there is good reason to be nervous lecturing with this material.

  • Reply Our Time To Quilt! March 25, 2018 at 11:42 pm

    Sadly, this theory has been proven untrue. Read the book by Barbara Brachman.

  • Reply Avion Mech June 14, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    This is misleading there is NO PROOF of these stories

  • Reply Sarah Ragland July 18, 2018 at 5:04 am

    This is Ours history we don’t try to tell y’all about your history . But some of you would just like if we only knew white people’s history we also have history

  • Reply Michelle Campbell August 6, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    I wish i knew how to contact Ms. Abernathy.. If anyone knows please let me know

  • Reply Catherine Hutchins November 23, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    I really enjoyed this lecture. I hate that I'm just coming upon it but it was excellent. Many years ago, when HIDDEN IN PLAIN VIEW came out, I was so inspired by it. Like you, I made those blocks but it seems like it was more than 10. I made them by hand with fabric I received from Ghana. It was so inspiring for me and although I did not have the prevledge of attending a university, black history is engrained in my very being. I follow the quilters of Gees Bend and their work touches the depths of my soul. I'm still quilting and getting better and better everyday. It gives me true peace and a sense of self. It takes me to that place of tranquility and a yearning for more knowledge.
    You are not the only one that can ramble. Thank you and may you remain blessed.

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