Underground Railroad Quilts

This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure policy here.

There has been much controversy over the claim that Underground Railroad quilts contained hidden messages to guide runaway slaves to freedom. Since the publication of Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt in 1993, this romantic notion has captured the imagination of many people and has grown to urban legend proportions.

While not as widely known as the legend, there has been reputable research done to disprove the many contradictory "Quilt Codes." The realities of the runaway slave experience -- the hardships, the hunger, the fear, the incredible courage and determination -- are diminished by the myth of secret messages hidden in quilts.

Teaching such an implausible and simplistic legend is a disservice to Underground Railroad history and the remarkable people who lived it.

Quilts, Slavery, and History

The Underground Railroad Quilt Controversy: Looking for the 'Truth'
by Laurel Horton.
Presented March 22, 2006
Length 44 minutes

International Quilt Study Center & Museum
at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Laurel Horton is a folklorist and an internationally known quilt researcher. A native of Kentucky, she earned a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Library Science from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. degree in Folklore from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Putting it in Perspective: The Symbolism of Underground Railroad quilts

Kris Driessen of Albany NY is an accomplished quiltmaker, quilt historian, quilting teacher, author, researcher, and lecturer. Her articles on dating, cleaning and just plain appreciating antique and vintage quilts have appeared in many publications.

History’s Tangled Threads

By Fergus M. Bordewich
New York Times
February 2, 2007

Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America.”

Betsy Ross Redux: Underground Railroad "Quilt Code"

By Leigh Fellner

Also take a look at some firsthand accounts of slaves and abolitionists

America's Quilting History -- Quilt History Myths

MYTH #2 ~ Specially designed quilts were used as signals by the Underground Railroad.


Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.