The pattern we call Bear's Paw was known as such in mid-nineteenth-century western Pennsylvania and Ohio. The very same pattern was called Duck's Foot-in-the-Mud on Long Island, New York. And for Philadelphia Quakers the pattern was named Hand of Friendship. The design known in 1800 as Job's Tears became Slave Chain by 1825 and Texas Tears by 1840 because of social opposition to slavery and interest in the Texas territory. After the Civil War, the pattern was called Rocky Road to Kansas or Kansas Troubles. The last name the pattern received was Endless Chain (Hall and Kretsinger, p.64). This early nineteenth-century pattern bears a striking resemblance to the early twentieth-century Double Wedding Ring pattern. We suspect the Job's Tears pattern to be the pattern referred to as Double Wedding Ring in Ozella's Underground Railroad Quilt Code. Some quilts served as billboards or banners for women to express their social or moral convictions through the names and meanings they gave the patterns. Patterned textiles also conveyed meaning in nineteenth-century Africa as, for example, the Ukara cloth of Cross River, Nigeria, wherein geometric designs pertained to the Leopard Secret Guardian Society. In both American quilt patterns and the Ukara cloth, the geometric designs conveyed messages and told stories. Our research also revealed a similarity in the composition of particular geometric patterns in American quilts and African textiles. Were there any real connections here? And how did these patterns function?

     Some geometric motifs surfaced in conjunction with secret societies throughout West Africa. When we took a closer look at these secret societies, their use of geometric designs, and their authority over the social, moral, and religious life of the community, we learned about the Poro Society for men and the Sande for women, which, like other secret societies, were part of the pattern of life and the structured culture in Africa. They often utilized geometrically configured signs and symbols. Stories were also incorporated in the societies' teaching of morals and history. Was there an African American equivalent? We wondered.

     Within a short period of time we found out. When reading about the narrative appliqué Bible quilts of the famed nineteenth-century African American quilter Harriet Powers, we were struck by her rendering of Jacob's Ladder and intrigued by references to Masonic symbols (see color photo section). Like most scholars in the field of African American quilt research, we wondered if Powers was a member of an Eastern Star women's association. When researching the images in her quilts and their possible Masonic meanings, we learned about the Prince Hall Masons, an African American fraternal organization found by Prince Hall in the late eighteenth century.


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August 2000