We memorized Ozella's story and looked to related sources for evidence connecting quilts to the Underground Railroad. We found a whole host of clues, tools we used to position the Quilt Code within its cultural and historical context: slavery in nineteenth-century America. Since many who were enslaved came from Africa and brought their culture with them, we needed to know and to appreciate African culture as it existed in Africa, and how it continued in adapted form on American soil.

     We submersed ourselves in African history to broaden our knowledge and to acquire a deeper understanding of its rich culture. We respected the oral tradition, the essence of African and African American history. We investigated African cultural antecedents and American quiltmaking precedents seeking links to the Underground Railroad Quilt story-code. We sought a visual language, one predicated upon geometric designs and distinctive stitches. We examined both African and American textile traditions, keeping in mind that the Quilt Code is an African American composition in which geometric quilt patterns are prominent. Stitches were also of interest to us because Ozella disclosed the use of stitches by slaves in forming a language to "talk" about paths to freedom. We had to ask ourselves how African and American elements were combined in signs, symbols, stitches, memory triggers we call mnemonic devices, and quiltmaking. Why were quilts the chosen medium to conceal and yet reveal a means of escape? How would an enslaved people who had little knowledge , if any, of the land beyond the plantation be able to chart a path out of bondage? Questions were coming faster than answers. But we suspected that clues existed in the use of patterns mentioned in the code.

     Thanks to many publications of quilt patterns and their meaning, including the early work of Marie D. Webster (1915), Ruth E. Finley (1929), the joint publication of Carrie A. Hall and Rose G. Kretsinger (1935, 1947), and the contemporary encyclopedias covering geometric as well as appliqué patterns compiled by Barbara Brackman (1979, 1984, 1993), we were able to trace American quilt patterns and see how they were used. For quilt stories and for the contemporary interpretation of the patterns and their links to African American history, we turned to many scholarly works, including the publications of Pat Ferrero, Elaine Hedges, Julie Silber, Sandi Fox, Cuesta Benberry, Gladys-Marie Fry, John Michael Vlach, and Maude S. Wahlman.

     Patchwork quilts were readable objects in nineenth-century America. Quilt patterns, in particular the geometric ones, were named according to geographic regions and to prevailing social concerns. Two examples are Bear's Paw and Job's Tears.

 

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HUAN 5 
August 2000