Underground Railroad Quilt

I recently learned of Underground Railroad Quilt, a legend or myth of how quilts were used to communicate with escaping slaves.  Now, I am not a quilter, much too impatient. But I love puzzles and patterns and am fascinated at how quilters create works of art out of scraps, creative minds, skilled hands… and patience.   And, secret codes stitched into quilts are very intriguing.    

A brief history lesson: The Underground Railroad operated before the Civil War as a network of freed slaves and abolitionists providing secret routes, safe houses and provisions as slaves made their way north to free states and Canada. It is estimated that between 1810 and 1850, the Underground Railroad assisted 100,000 slaves to escape, even though providing such support violated state laws and the United States Constitution.  

It was also against the law to teach slaves to read or write, making communication difficult and risky.  According to the legend, slaves would make quilts using symbols representing a specific instruction or direction.   Stories and songs around the fire at night were coded messages to teach them the symbols to follow on the road.  

Abolitionists and freed slaves would make quilts using one coded pattern and hang them outside their homes as signs to lead fleeing slaves on the path to freedom. 

American-Historama.org (click on image to redirect to source)


     Monkey Wrench– Gather the tools you need to navigate, build shelter and defend yourself.
         Bear’s Paw – Take mountain trails and follow the path of bears to get to water and food.
              Crossroads – Represented Cleveland Ohio, where many routes led to freedom.
                 Log Cabin – Safe House
                      Bow Ties – Dress the part! Change out of your slave clothes to dress as freed men
                         Flying Geese – Go in spring and follow Geese north.
                              North Star – Follow the North Star
                                 Tumbling Boxes – Pack up and get ready to go

Fact or Fiction?  The Underground Railroad Quilt Code is an innovative and interesting tool that provides valuable insight into the struggle for freedom. What the Underground Railroad accomplished is truly miraculous. They faced enormous challenges fighting the firmly entrenched institution, economic system and cultural acceptance of slavery. Their efforts were hampered by the laws that made it illegal to help escaped slaves.  

         They were COMMITTED and BRAVE.  They risked their livelihoods and sometimes their lives.
         They worked in COLLABORATION, crossing racial, social and economic borders.  Slave and Free. Black and White. Rich and Poor. North and South.
         Their CONDUCTORS were often freed slaves (Survivors led the way).
         They equipped slaves with TOOLS they needed to survive… physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
         They provided SAFE HOUSES and SUPPORT along the way.
         They were INNOVATIVE using songs, signs, symbols, whistles… maybe even quilts.

Today we face a different, but still devastating kind of slavery.  We have the advantage. Slavery is illegal. The law is on the side of freedom. 

When we look back over the years since the 2012 landmark passage of Prop 35/CASE Act proposed by California Against Slavery and the Safer California Foundation,  the progress made in the movement to eradicate human trafficking, protect the vulnerable, and support victims and survivors is remarkable. 

With long time champions and recent advocates, our lawmakers have mandated awareness training of law enforcement, educators, transit, and hotel personnel, posting of the hotline number, educating our children, and expunging records and vacating convictions of victims.  And, most recently, included an ongoing $10 million in the state budget for human trafficking services and support.   

Law enforcement has developed special human trafficking investigative task forces, implements multi-agency operations, trains in victim identification and victim-centered response, and partners in community training and awareness programs.  

In counties, cities, and communities across our state, dedicated public servants and committed service providers are working together to provide public awareness campaigns, housing, transitional living support, health services, counseling, education, legal assistance, and expand services to underserved populations. 

It is wonderful what has been accomplished, but we still have a long way to go.  Let’s look to the lessons of the past. Be fully committed and don’t give up. Work in collaboration. Listen to the voice of victims. Follow the leadership of survivors.  Provide housing and transitional living. Equip with life skills and education. Support healing and spiritual wholeness. Be bold and innovative.  

Check out our new CAS Statewide Directory of Services to see what is offered in your area… and how you can connect. This is a living, breathing resource.  We realize we may have missed some of you, so please submit your organizations here.

Proud to serve with you,
Ginger Shaw