We are acutely aware that stories are woven through the fabric of the African American community, binding individuals to their ancestors and to each other. These stories are the remnants of a history that is still being written. To follow the stories is to trace African American history:  from Africa to America, from bondage to freedom, from survival to triumph, and the creation of an African American culture.

     Stories about the Underground Railroad have circulated in the African American community for generations. Several of these stories have made their way into print in the form of children's books. Some stories have formed the basis for more extensive scholarship in folklore studies, African American quilting, and spirituals. Of the many stories told about the Underground Railroad, one is recurrent. It has been found in three different parts of the country, told by three different people, at three different times, and in three intriguingly similar yet unique ways. In each, the story line is essentially the same:  quilts were used as maps on the Underground Railroad. In each, particular quilt patterns are identified. Is it coincidence that the patterns and the story line are the same or is it an example of how oral tradition keeps history alive?

     When we reached this point in structuring a methodology, we felt as though we had climbed Jacob's Ladder. We had encountered much on the way up, from the many stories and patterns we investigated. Our vantage point was now from the upper rung of an intellectual ladder, from which we were able to see many facets of the African American quilt and the path described in the Quilt Code. The code that carried us back to Africa, returned us to America, and finally transported us to Canada, was now in plain sight.

     Based on my knowledge as a quilter/historian, Jacki's expertise in women's stories, and our combined research, we were able to formulate a theory of how this Quilt Code may have worked for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Our interpretation of the code is based in part upon informed conjecture. While we believe that our research and the piecing together of our findings present a strong viable case, we do not claim that our "deciphering" of the code is infallible. Nor do we insist that our perspective is the only one for viewing the code. We have written the book in a way that encourages questions. We leave room for the reader to add her/his own ideas and thereby contribute to the growing body of knowledge. In the spirit of quiltmaking, we invite you to join us in juxtaposing ideas so that patterns and meanings are revealed.

 

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HUAN 5 
August 2000