Subscribe to The Horn Book

>Jilted quilts

>Martha P. just sent me a link to an NYT op-ed piece by Fergus Bordewich about the history and, more pointedly, the myths of the Underground Railroad. Pretty juicy stuff. His expose, of course, does not make the true stories of slave escapes any less dramatic–I really like the new picture book by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson, Henry’s Freedom Box (Scholastic), about a slave who had himself mailed North.

There was a time–the 1980s–when it looked like children’s literature was going to be smothered with quilts, not just as maps for escaping slaves but anytime anyone needed a symbol for intergenerational understanding. It was too easy, and just another way of tucking children in. Throw OFF your quilts, I say!

Bordewich is also the author of the similarly myth-busting Killing the White Man’s Indian, which took on the Chief Seattle/Dances with Wolves view of Native Americans and revealed a far more complex picture than many want to see. His autobiography, My Mother’s Ghost, is good, too.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Mitali Perkins says:

    >Weird. We are having a mind-morph across the Charles River. I posted a quilt on my blog today, too, and ironically, referred to it obliquely as a “symbol for intergenerational understanding.” Oh, well.

  2. >I always have been suspicious of those quilts! it’s about time someone else took notice. but on the other hand Henry “Box” Brown has been a staple of children’s lit for at least thirty years. there is
    continuous “discovery” in the field, and a good thing too!

  3. KT Horning says:

    >Interesting. Too bad he didn’t mention the name of of children’s book from the mid-1980s that started it all. Anyone know what it is?

  4. anatidaeling says:

    >In response to kt horning’s question, was it _The Quilt_ by Ann Jonas?

  5. J. L. Bell says:

    >See Leigh Fellner’s website for a thorough study of the myth of the quilt code. Among the early children’s books promulgating some link between quilts and the Underground Railroad are Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad Quilt in the Sky and Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. Neither reflects the supposed code published in Hidden in Plain View, the source for most statements since its publication in 1999.

  6. Kt Horning says:

    >Frankly, this looks like bad reporting based on sloppy scholarship at best. In regard to the children’s picture books, Fellner’s site links directly to a 7-page research paper (which appears to be unpublished) by librarian Deborah Foley of the Huffington Library in Culver, Indiana.

    Foley mentions three picture books in her paper: Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, published in 1991, Under the Quilt of Night, also by Deborah Hopkinson, published in 2001, and The Secret to Freedom, by Marcia Vaughan, published in 2001. The latter two cite “Hidden in Plain View” by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, which was published in 1999. Foley’s point is that the first book by Hopkinson doesn’t pretend to be anything but a work of fiction, while the second two may have been inspired by “Hidden in Plain View” since they both include an author’s note citing this nonfiction book as the source.

    She also lists Faith Ringgold’s picture book “Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky” (1995) in her list of “Works Cited,” although she does not mention it all in her paper, possibly because the book doesn’t have anything to do with quilts. This may simply be a case of guilt by association, since Ringgold is best known as a quilt artist.

    “The Quilt” by Ann Jonas was published in the correct decade, but it has nothing to do with the underground railroad.

    So my question remains: what is the children’s picture book from the mid-1980s that Roger quotes Bordewich who cites Fellner who links to Foley who says nothing of the kind, that supposedly started it all?

  7. rindambyers says:

    >May I speak here as a long-time sewer, now quilt designer of my own quilt artworks, and incessant long-time, many years and many, many books, intensely curious researcher into ethnic needlework and needlework techniques from many cultures?

    I am WELL aware of this controversy and have been researching this specific topic for many months now. I am waitng, before I render my own final opinon in public, to read the new book by highly respect quilt historian, Barbara Brackman, on this subject; however, I would like to point out a few things that others might consider in this controversy

    The few authenticated slave quilts that have survived, which were made by slaves, have survived BECAUSE they were made for, used by, and preserved by WHITE owners! Many of these were gorgeous and of very high quality, very valuable, and often did contain images and style techniques attributed to slaves who came from certain counties along the African Coast.

    Many people simply don’t know that many slaves did not need, originally, to be taught how to sew. They already had highly developed needlework and weaving skills when they were enslaved! These SKILLS were what slave mothers and grandmothers in particular treasuerd and passed to their daughters–AND SONS! The products produced by these skills, products which became the properties of the slave owners, were not the things that were valuable TO SLAVES until AFTER the civil war, when former slaves could finally use thier SKILLS to produce very valuable products that they could finally OWN themselves and sell, pass on, etc.

    The sewing machine was in use on a few large slave plantations in the south just before the Civil War; HOWEVER, quilting could not be done very well, especially on larger more valuable bed-size quilts, on the straight stitch machines–ONLY the piecing of the quilts. This meant that the hand-quilted quilt, the hand-appliqued quilt, the hand-sewen and hand-quilted white on white trapunto type quilts were STILL HIGHLY VALUAABLE OBJECTS and provided for many a former slave household a means by which a woman, in particular, could work at home and still earn money and still care for her own children. It has only been inthe last 50 years or so, with new inventions, that quilting by machine has at last become something that can finally reproduce something of the very high quality of these old hand-quilted pieces of TRUE ART!

    Slaves were given only the poorest of cloth and sewing materials for their own quilts, of which only a handfull have survived–and NONE made after the so-called Underground Railroad Quilt Code. After you read about the cleaning techniques used for the slaves’ own quilts, when they were cleaned, which was rarely, since cleanign was SO destructive to the materials, involved things like hot water, harsh lye soap, hanging to dry in bright sunlight, and being footstomped by the children in the washing trough…actually, I read one slave account/narrative story of how a fugitive escaped by hiding under a pile of slave utility quilts in the corner of a slave cabin…what to know WHY the searchers never looked under the pile? The quilts stank. They were filthy. They were hard to keep clean and still be of use!

    Two other realities that go against the Underground Railroad Quilt Code: Sewing even ONE of those quilts required considerable expertise in piecing and cutting. You need good light, you need good tools, you need a rested eye and hand to do this well–by HAND! Most slave quilters had to quilt and making clothign in the hours after a day’s hard labor or sewing for the “big house.” They were under constant pressure to simply clothe and provide warm coverings for themselves. It’s foolish to even think of slaves being able to have hte quality time available to make even one of the quilts in this so-called quilt code “series,” much less the several needed to complete the code. Also, hanging the quilts outside on a non-washing day would be suspicious, highly suspicious. Furthermore, if you know ANYTHING about cotton fabrics, you know the WORST thing you can do to them is expose them to constant sunlight! Quilts of any sort, belonging to any owner, of any quality were only “aired” broguht out into the sunlight, washed, rarely, very rarely. It would be VERY odd to see quilts being brought out regularly and just left hanging outside a house somewhere for more than a day in year or every six months at hte most!

    I DON’T think the Underground RAilroad is a myth at all! I think slaves were very clever and brave and full of incredible spirit to survive and try to escape–that the idea, the dream of “being free” survived within their hearts and souls and minds so well. And many did escape! I’m in AWE of how they survived, the slaves. In AWE.

    But I don’t believe one word of this Underground Quilt Myth. And I question, very seriously, in a historical, scientific way of questioning that ANYONE has any stories anywhere in any family that can be authenticated about this “Code” in slave quilts.

    What is SO sad is that the real courage and heroism of slave women who sewed, the wonderful stories of their lives (and remmeber no mention of a quilt with this “Code” has ever been found in ANY authenticslave narratives either, and the beautty of the quilts they produced, which are TRUE works of art, is over-shadwoed and even suppressed by silly works of fiction like Hopkinson’s “Sweet Clara” book. Even the name “Sweet Clara” is demeaning. Could you imagine a white girl being called that name in that time? Or any time? In ANY picturebook?

    Besides, it insults the intelligence of slaves to think that they needed quilts to remember a “code” to freedom. They had the stars! They knew the stars! They knew how to find directions at nigth by the stars! They had their SONGS, their STORIES, their INCREDIBLE MEMORIES, their own RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND PRACTICES. They were smart, smart, smart with incredible memories.

    See my references below for those who have said all this far, far better than I–and remember, this is NOT a debate between white historians and black hsitorians: This is a very hot debate between black historians especially.

    Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery
    Barbara Brackman

    Sorry for hogging the sandbox here, but I just had to speak out–for all the unknown, poor, incredibly brave women–and children too– who dared to sew beauty, hopes, dreams, treasures beyond compare into the works of their hands.

  8. Anonymous says:

    >RE- Dances with wolves.

    I was online with several American Indians (and members of Canadian First Nations Bands) onFIDnet, the precursor to the Internet, when the movie Dances with Wolves came out. They freely discussed how accurate the Native American tribal life was and they were proud that all the Native Am. parts were played by Native Americans. (not necessarily by members of the tribe featured in the story, tho.)

    -librarian/ writer

  9. anatidaeling says:

    >LOL, kt. I answered the wrong question. I thought you were asking which book started the 1980s trend of quilt books “not just as maps for escaping slaves but (as) a symbol for intergenerational understanding.”

    We used to do lots of quilt-themed storytimes. _The Quilt_ was usually included. Also _Tucking Mommy In_ which didn’t have much to do with quilts, but had beautiful quilt endpapers.

  10. KT Horning says:

    >I don’t doubt what you’re saying, rindambyers. I just doubt this statement made by Fergus Bordewich in his NYT column:

    “The notion of maps hidden in quilts surfaced in the 1980s — in a children’s book, according to a quilting historian, Leigh Fellner, who has shown that many of the patterns supposed to contain “coded” directions for fugitives date from the 20th century.”

    As far as I can tell, the first children’s book to use this idea was a work of fiction published in 1991. Furthermore, Fellner’s source says nothing of the kind (and appears to be a C-level college term paper, in any case; thus my reference to sloppy research). The real culprit for spreading the myth seems to be the authors of the adult history book “Hidden in Plain View,” which was published nearly a decade later. But I suppose it makes a better story when it’s a children’s book. I myself got caught up in the notion until I spent ten minutes or so tracing the sources on Fellner’s website and found the story to be untrue.

    Overall, this little piece of the story demonstrates how easy it is for people to grab onto an engaging piece of misinformation and quickly spread it, without checking out the facts.

  11. J. L. Bell says:

    >KT Horning, the statement you’re doubting came from Fergus Bordewich, not Leigh Fellner.

    If you look at the front page of Fellner’s website, you’ll see that her earliest citation of any sort of “quilt code” is a 1987 movie. Then she acknowledges the fictional Sweet Clara picture book.

    Most of Fellner’s website is indeed aimed at Hidden in Plain View and writers influenced by it since that’s the most prominent, detailed, and seemingly scholarly statement about a “quilt code.” The site is far more carefully researched and thorough than a “a C-level college term paper.”

    If you want to blame anyone for mangling the facts on this detail, blame Bordewich. He misstated what Fellner has been saying consistently for a long time.

  12. rindawriter says:

    >Just some more links for anyone truly interested in, ahem, ahem, getting to the real nitty-gritty of the actual debate here which is NOT the accuracy of when nor how the debate and the myth started but the stories of African-American quilts and those who made them…and how the quilts are designed and made…

    several excellent books recommended here.

    If you want to REALLY see what the excitment about African-American quilting is all about, here are stunning photos There is also a book containing much more information about these quilts called “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.”

    It is fascinating to study the work of African-American quilters particularly starting AFTER the Civil War, when the quilters were freed to TRULY DESIGN their own works. The quilts of Gee’s Bend, for example, are not drawn out on paper and designed precisely as most white American quilters do. They are COMPOSED much like a jazz piece is played in real time, as you go along,…in other words, you start with an idea and no rigid final drawing to scale and fabric at hand, often of mixed age and composition, (as opposed to buying caerfully matched quilt designer fabrics in the store) and scissors and sewing tools, and you start cutting and sewing and fiddling and remaking directly with the materials themselves…arranging and rearranging and yes doing some ripping too until you feel it’s just right and says what you really want the quilt to say. Then you stop. And you can put words or anything else on the quilt that you feel belongs there–a sort of intricate collage dance of colors and shapes.

    It’s quite an high to compose an original quilt in this way–I’ve done several now in this free style of composition, and it’s just exhilerating as a form of free and deep expression of oneself. You DO “waste” a little extra time, a little extra fabric–as compared to exactly figuring everything out to scale on a drawign beforehand, but that only adds to the challenge and the fun–and the addictive high of doing it! And yes you do use traditional blocks, but you figure out which ones and where as you go along–not ahead of time.

    Check out the excitement going on in the art world of quilts like the quilts of Gee’s Bend on Google….

  13. Darcy Pattison says:


    At the International Quilt Study Center website, you can listen to folklorist, Laurel Horton, comment on the Underground Railroad quilt controversy. This is the most balanced and reasonable presentation on the subject I’ve seen.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind