WASHINGTON – What do quilts and rap music have in common?
It's all in the code.
“Codes can be visual,verbal or audible – they can take us from everything from quilts to rap music,” said Raymond Dobard,co-author of “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad” and professor of art history at Howard University. “I assure you there's a great deal of communication.”
Dobard,56,spoke to 75 people at the International Spy Museum Tuesday about how slaves communicated through stitches,knots and patterns in quilts. The majority of audience members at the Black History Month program were quilters,historians or those interested in the underground railroad.
Quilters incorporated code symbols into their quilt designs. The quilts would be hung “seeming to air,” Dobard said,but would be offering warnings or directions to safety to escaping slaves.
“This is just one code,in one small geographic area,” Dobard said of the code he shared with the audience,which dealt with the slave escape route from Charleston,S.C.,to Cleveland. He said Cleveland was identified as the “crossroads” and was a “hub” for underground activity.
Dobard said he doesn't know of any coded quilts that have survived the more than 100 years since the underground railroad was active,noting the quilts were often made of cotton,used and washed.
But when it comes to quilt codes,it is necessary to believe what you hear.
“It depends on how much you believe oral history,or if you need tangible evidence,” Dobard said.
Dobard had a number of quilts to show the audience – quilts that he had sewn himself. He said he watched his aunt do needlework in New Orleans when he was 8 years old and soon wanted to learn the craft.
“I snuck into an alley,using thread left over from flying a kite,” Dobard said,telling the audience his mother would not have approved. “In 1975,I needed something to calm my nerves when I began my teaching career – so I turned to needlework.”
As a self-described iconographer,Dobard said he loves to investigate the meaning of symbols and forms. There were 10 symbols in the code Dobard discussed,including double wedding rings,a monkey wrench and a wagon wheel.
“In a covert operation,I don't think you'd write down all that you know and all that you do,because it could fall into the wrong hands,” Dobard said.
A seamstress taught the codes to others using sampler quilts,which Dobard said are “standard in the quilting world to pass on patterns.” The sampler quilts Dobard mentioned included all 10 symbols to “enforce memory and give a directive.”
Dobard said in the beginning of the code “there are five square knots on the quilt every two inches apart.” This apparently helped slaves figure out in which direction it was safe to move.
“Have something in plain view – that's the best way to hide,” Dobard said.
One well-known quilting pattern is the double wedding rings,and it was used as part of the code,Dobard said. When slaves saw the pattern and heard a call and response of wedding bells rung by two churches,it was a signal that it was safe for slaves to move.
The code is “in your mind” and the interpretation of messages probably varied slightly from person to person,Dobard said. But the overall meanings got across,he said.
Another part of the code says to stay on the “drunkard's path,” and a woman from Alabama told him that a drunkard's path reminded her of the rivers,Dobard said. It was telling slaves to follow the waterways.
In 1993,Jacqueline Tobin,Dobard's co-author,came across Ozella McDaniel Williams in Charleston,S.C. Williams told Tobin how slaves used coded quilts to communicate.
“Have you ever been involved in something so intense that you lose all track of time?” Dobard asked the audience. “Apparently that's what took place.”
Dobard stressed the importance of oral history and said he wants young people to appreciate everything their elders have to offer,because “once they die,unfortunately,we've lost a chapter in this nation's history.”
After the lecture and slide show,Dobard asked the audience to design a quilt pattern. They had thick paper,colorful foam,scissors and glue to work with.
“I'm not ashamed to say I used glue this evening,” said Katharine Rupp of Reston,Va.,as she reached for the bottle.
Rupp attended the event with three friends,and said once she heard about it,“You couldn't have kept me away with wild horses,” because she quilts. She also wrote her senior honors thesis about American quilting and design.
Rupp picked up the bowl of foam pieces and dumped it onto Meghan Glansy's empty square and said,“Want to know where to start? Just let it flow. Nothing technical.”
“I'm not really crafty,but I'm interested in it,” said Glansy,also of Reston.
Rupp said she thought her design was going to develop as she went along,and it hadn't “spoken to her yet.”
“You just know when it's in the right place,” Rupp said,as she arranged black foam rectangles and pink foam triangles on her square. “There are no rules other than the rules you give it – that's what quilting is all about.”