By Cyneatha Millsaps and Tonya Johnson
I always wanted to make an underground railroad quilt after one was given to me for my ordination in 2010. Underground Railroad quilts tell a unique story of how the African Slave used the codes hidden in quilts. If you have never read, Hidden in Plain View by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, PhD., you should.
My quilt features nine different quilt blocks along with a border of four different modes of escape. The African slave used the stars to guide them north. They would cross fields, mountains and water to reach freedom in Canada. This quilt tells that story. The quilt also has a message on the back, you will have to win this quilt to see the hidden message, which represents the ingenuity of the African women who used the size and distance of the quilt stitch to map the road to freedom.
I chose a muslin fabric for the background to give it an old look to represent the fact that the African women would have only used discarded fabrics of the slave owner; then contrasted it with Congo cloth. These fabrics represent the rich history and beauty of the African people.
This quilt is completely machine sewn. My daughter Tonya and myself made this quilt together. This was Tonya’s first-time quilting, and only my second machine sewn, so please don’t expect perfection. This quilt is sewn with love of history and passing the legacy of quilt making to the next generation. Tonya loves quilting and is currently hand quilting her first solo quilt.
Here is the code for each quilt block: the quilts would appear on clotheslines throughout the path north to help the African Slave escape.
|Monkey Wrench (upper left corner)|
Gather your tools, we will be leaving within a couple of days. The slaves knew to pack food and other basic supplies for the journey.
|Wagon Wheel (upper center)|
If this quilt came out it meant they would be leaving on a wagon, or more likely below or as cargo on a wagon.
|Bear Claw (upper right corner)|
Follow the animal footprints through the fields and mountains.
|Crossroads (center left)|
If you are turning back, you must turn back now in order to make it back to the plantation before anyone knows your missing. (I tell people after this quilt, Harriet Tubman would have been forced to shoot you, because you would put everyone in danger if you didn’t complete the journey.)
|Log Cabin (center)|
This is a safe house. The abolitionists displayed the log cabin quilt and provided food, clothing and shelter from slave catchers. The symbol of the log cabin means you are trustworthy.
|Bow Tie (center right)|
This is where you will change clothes. The African Slave was likely in the north, but not completely safe. They would need a new change of clothes, but even more so a change in demeanor. This household would help them look the part of a free Black person.
|Drunkards Path (bottom left corner)|
Slave catchers where in the area. Be careful on the road. Do not make a straight path to your next destination. Walk up one street then turn down another street, stop at a local store. Look as if you have business in the town and not moving through.
|Boat (bottom center)|
We are traveling by boat. Many African slaves went directly to ships and sailed to islands south of the United States a and north around the US to Canada. These were difficult journeys, and many did not make it.
|North Star (bottom right corner)|
This is the most important quilt on the journey. It represented freedom. If the African saw the display of the North Star, they knew they were in Canada and therefore free. They could not be returned to the United States by slave catchers.