“It meant gather your tools and get physically and mentally prepared to escape the plantation,” Dobard said. The seamstress would then hang a quilt with a wagon wheel pattern. This pattern told slaves to pack their belongings because they were about to go on a long journey.
What is the significance of barn quilts?
Barn quilts tell stories about individual farms, historical events or communities while also adding visual interest to the countryside and increasing rural tourism.
What were freedom quilts used for?
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.
What does the crossroad quilt mean?
Some records indicate this symbol meant a wagon with hidden compartments in which slaves could conceal themselves, would soon be embarking for the trip to freedom. Wagon Wheel Variation: Crossroads: A symbol referring to Cleveland, Ohio, which was the main crossroads.
What is the Underground Railroad quilt code?
A quilting pattern often overlooked in today’s society is the Underground Railroad quilt code. Used during the time of abolition and the Civil War, this visual code sewn into the pattern of quilts readied slaves for their upcoming escape and provided them directions when they were on their way to freedom.
Where did quilting originate from?
Quilting can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt. In the British Museum is an ivory carving from the Temple of Osiris at Abydos found in 1903 which features the king of the First Egyptian Dynasty wearing a cloak or mantle that appears to be quilted.
Why are barns red?
Hundreds of years ago, many farmers would seal their barns with linseed oil, which is an orange-colored oil derived from the seeds of the flax plant. Rust was plentiful on farms and because it killed fungi and mosses that might grow on barns, and it was very effective as a sealant. It turned the mixture red in color.
What were some signals on the Underground Railroad?
Certain Songs were sung as symbols of Underground Railway members. “All Clear” was conveyed in safe houses using a lighted lantern in a certain place as this symbol. Knocks on doors used a coded series of taps as symbols of identity. Certain items, such as a quilt, were hung on a clothesline.
How did slaves communicate through quilts?
When slaves made their escape, they used their memory of the quilts as a mnemonic device to guide them safely along their journey, according to McDaniel. The seamstress would then hang a quilt with a wagon wheel pattern. This pattern told slaves to pack their belongings because they were about to go on a long journey.
What was the quilt theory?
Quilts of the Underground Railroad describes a controversial belief that quilts were used to communicate information to African slaves about how to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. It has been disputed by a number of historians.
What does the Bear Paw Quilt symbolize?
The Bear’s Paw quilt was hung to encourage Underground Railroad passengers to follow bear excrement on the path. That way they would be able to find water and food.
What does the Log Cabin mean in the Underground Railroad?
A Log Cabin quilt hanging in a window with a black center for the chimney hole was said to indicate a safe house. Underground Railroad quilts, a variation of Jacob’s Ladder, were said to give cues as to the safe path to freedom.
How many quilt codes are there?
“They could feel or sense light through their struggle of trying to get to freedom.” Prior to 1999, the codes were unheard of even to the African American quilting community. That’s according to Marsha MacDowell, a quilt scholar and director of the Quilt Index, a massive online catalog of more than 90,000 quilts.
What is the oldest quilt pattern?
The Crazy Quilt is probably the oldest of quilt patterns. Early quilters used any scrap or remnant available, regardless of its color, design, or fabric type.
Who made underground railroad quilts?
But historians note that the sole source for that story was one woman— Ozella McDaniel Williams, a retired educator and quilt maker in Charleston, S.C., who recounted for Tobin a family tradition that had been passed down to her through the generations.
Underground Railroad Quilt Codes: What We Know, What We Believe, and What Inspires Us
Train conductors on the Underground Railroad were free persons who provided assistance to escaped slaves moving via the Underground Railroad network. Runaway slaves were assisted by conductors, who ensured their safe transportation to and from stations. They were able to accomplish this under the cover of night, with slave hunters close behind them. Many of these stations would be in the comfort of their own homes or places of work. However, despite the fact that they were placing themselves in severe risk, these conductors continued to work for a cause larger than themselves: the liberation of thousands of enslaved human beings.
They represented a diverse range of racial, occupational, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Slaves were considered to be property, and the freeing of slaves was interpreted as a theft of the personal property of slave owners.
Captain Jonathan Walker was apprehended off the coast of Florida while attempting to transport slaves fleeing to freedom in the Bahamas.
- In one of his songs, the abolitionist poet John Whittier paid respect to Walker’s bravery by writing: “Then raise that mighty right hand, brave ploughman of the sea!
- She never got separated from any of them.
- He continued to write.
- John Parker is yet another former slave who managed to elude capture and return to slave states in order to aid in the liberation of others.
- His next-door neighbor and fellow conductor, Reverend John Rankin, collaborated with him on the Underground Railroad.
- The Underground Railroad’s conductors were unquestionably anti-slavery, and they were not alone in their beliefs.
- Individuals such as William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur and Lewis Tappan founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, which marked the beginning of the abolition movement.
- Poems, paintings, essays, and other abolitionist content were featured in the society’s yearly almanac.
- He produced a journal, the North Star, in which he expressed his support for the abolition of slavery as one of his main objectives.
- Susan B.
She exhorted the audience to “take up the cause of the slave.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, gave the world a realistic picture of the adversities that slaves endured. For the most part, she based her story on the adventures of escaped slave Josiah Henson.
Did Quilts Hold Codes to the Underground Railroad?
According to two scholars, African American slaves may have utilized a patchwork code to navigate the Underground Railroad during their time as slaves. According to the duo, quilts with designs such as “wagon wheel,” “tumbling blocks,” and “bear’s paw” appear to have included secret signals that guided slaves to freedom. The quilt code idea was initially proposed by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard in their book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, which was released in 1998 and has been around for six years.
McDaniel maintains that the secret of the quilt code was passed down from one generation to the next by her foremothers and forefathers.
McDaniel detailed the code in a series of conversations with Tobin and Dobard, which included the following: Plantation seamstresses would create a sampler quilt, which would have several distinct quilt designs. Slaves would learn the code with the help of the sampler. The seamstress then stitched ten quilts, each of which was made up of a different design from the code. The quilts would be hung in plain view by the seamstress one at a time, allowing the slaves to reinforce their recall of the design and the meaning connected with the pattern.
- According to historians, the first quilt made by the seamstress to be displayed had a wrench pattern on it.
- In this pattern, slaves were instructed to pack their possessions because they would be embarking on a lengthy journey.
- “You were intended to follow in the bear’s actual footsteps,” Dobard explained.
- When Dobard finished the last quilt, she used a tumbling blocks design that she described as appearing like a collection of boxes.
“It was only exhibited when specific requirements were met, and that was the case with this quilt. If, for example, there was an agent of the Underground Railroad in the vicinity, “Dobard expressed himself. “It was a clear indicator that it was time to pack up and leave.”
Fact or Myth?
McDaniel detailed the code in detail over a series of meetings with Tobin and Dobard. Plantation seamstresses would create a sampler quilt, which would have a variety of various quilt designs. Using the sampler, slaves would be able to recall the code. In the next weeks, the seamstress stitched 10 quilts, each one made up of a pattern from the code. The quilts were hung in plain view by the seamstress one at a time, allowing the slaves to reinforce their recall of the design and the message it represented.
- The first quilt the seamstress displayed, according to historians, included a wrench pattern.
- In this pattern, slaves were instructed to pack their possessions since they would be embarking on a lengthy journey.
- As Dobard said, “you were expected to follow the bear’s actual footsteps.” Water, fruit, and other natural food sources are always popular with bears.
- “It was only exhibited when specific criteria were met, which made it a very special quilt.
- “This was said by Dobard.
History of underground railroad quilts, african quilts
The quilts of the underground railroad have an interesting history, which you can read about here. Although there is no written record of the codes that may have been present, historians have discovered some trustworthy evidence in documented verbal testimonies that demonstrate the significance of the quilts in aiding slaves on their journey to liberty.
Harriet Tubman and The Under ground Railroad
Harriet Tubman is widely recognized as the founder of the Underground Railroad, which assisted thousands of slaves in their escape from southern plantations during the mid-nineteenth century. However, what is less widely known is the fact that quilts were used to guide slaves to freedom in the northern states during the Civil War. Quilt designs included a complicated system of codes, and those attempting to flee learned how to read the codes as they made their way down the Underground Railway’s path.
Because the majority of black people who were confined in slavery were unable to write or read, it was vital to devise a straightforward method of delivering the information.
The quilts may include information about which road to go, where a safe place could be found, and/or where to contact individuals who would be willing to provide food and shelter for a night or more.
Among the countless songs, dances, and gestures that slaves had created were some that carried signals and information that were critical to their survival.
This was the only way they could form plans and communicate with one another without worrying that the slave owners and overseers would find out what they were up to and arrest them.
Forming landscape quilts to guide
The codes that were used in the Underground Railroad quilts were devised by slaves, freed blacks, and white individuals who were opposed to the system of slavery and who wanted to see slavery abolished. It was imperative that these codes be kept secret, and even the smallest children were aware that this knowledge was to be kept safe at all times. African people were the originators of many of the patterns that may be found in Underground Railway quilts. During the traumatic years of slavery, they were passed down from one generation to the next and served as a means of preserving their history and culture alive for future generations.
Patterns with specific knots, stitching colors, or shape can provide an abundance of information.
Given the fact that quilts were typical household objects, they could be hung from trees and fences, as well as from windows, porches, and clotheslines, where they would be plainly visible to anybody passing by.
Log cabin quilt patterns
The codes that were used in the Underground Railroad quilts were devised by slaves, freed blacks, and white individuals who were opposed to the system of slavery and who wanted to see slavery abolished as quickly as possible. Those codes were kept a secret, and even the smallest children were aware of the need of maintaining the secrecy of such knowledge. African folks were the originators of many of the patterns that may be found in Underground Railroad quilts. During the horrific years of slavery, they were passed down from one generation to the next and served as a means of preserving their history and culture alive for the following generation.
Patterns with different knots, stitching colors, and shapes may provide an abundance of information.
Given the fact that quilts were typical household objects, they might be hung from trees or fences, as well as from windows, porches, and clotheslines, where they would be plainly visible to anybody passing by.
Underground Railroad Quilts Contained Codes That Led To Freedom
Each patch has a set of instructions sewn on it. Others were there to restock supplies, some were there to track bear prints, and some were there to take diversions. A presentation of the Underground Quilts by the Riley Center Quilters was held on Tuesday evening at the Birmingham Public Library Central Branch. Others quilts were enormous, some were little; some were completed, some were not; but all included instructions on how to emancipate oneself from the bonds of servitude. Daphne Simmons, a member of the Riley Center Quilters, explained that quilts were utilized as codes since they were the only method of communication available.
- “There was a code, an unwritten code.
- Simmons went into detail about the significance of each patch on her quilt.
- It was written on the quilt, “This block contains an alternating route of dark and light that denotes direction,” and that specific quilt instructed slaves in which direction they should move: north, south, east, or west.
- “It’s a tool in the same way that a genuine monkey wrench is,” Simmons explained.
- This patch represented the period of time during which they would need to gather the tools they would use on their trip north to freedom.
- The capacity to determine the intents of strangers, according to Simmons, comes from “knowledge and experience.” She spoke into detail about the block with the wagon wheel.
- As a result of the restricted weight and space available, they had to carry things that were vital for survival.
- It was pointed out by Simmons that the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” made reference to a wagon wheel.
According to her, it is a “secondary coding pattern.” “The song was generally chanted in conjunction with that block because plantation owners believed that slaves were singing about joining Jesus in Heaven.” They were in fact transmitting a secret message.” She explained that they were supposed to follow the carpenter’s wheel to the northwest.
- In order to avoid being eaten by a bear, “you would follow their paws and their trail.
- According to her, “following those bear paws, they’ll also be guided to food and water.” “Animals will lead you in the right direction.” Basket A basket indicated that the runaways would resupply their provisions at a secure location.
- A major crossroads occurred in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, as Simmons explained.
- I’m traveling to see someone in another city and rely on Google Maps to get there.
- Running away to a shoofly for clothes is something that may happen.
- “There would be sailors on hand to assist you in across the river and entering Canada, where the North Star (the next block away) would shine brightly with your independence,” says the author.
- “There were some northern states that empathized with slaves, and there were some northern states who were opposed to it,” she explained.
- Lesson in Learning Many people, including Miriam Omura, who was in attendance, found this seminar to be a valuable learning experience.
- She gained a better understanding of the symbols that were utilized on the Underground Railroad.
- “It was nice to learn about even more of the ones I was unaware of,” says the author.
- “It makes me want to create one,” Gross expressed interest in doing so.
“I’m still new at quilting; I’ve only been doing it for about nine months. I’ve only made one so far, and I’m now working on my second. In this experience, I learnt something that I don’t believe I would have learned otherwise,” Gross added.
Underground Railroad Secret Codes : Harriet Tubman
Supporters of the Underground Railroad utilized phrases that railroad conductors used every day to construct their own code as a secret language in order to aid slaves in their escape from slavery. This was chosen since the railroad was a new kind of transportation and its communication language was not widely understood. Code words would be used in letters to “agents” so that if they were intercepted, they would not be identified. A form of Underground Railroad code was also utilized in slave songs to allow slaves to communicate with one another without their owners being aware of their activities.
|Agent||Coordinator, who plotted courses of escape and made contacts.|
|Baggage||Fugitive slaves carried by Underground Railroad workers.|
|Bundles of wood||Fugitives that were expected.|
|Conductor||Person who directly transported slaves|
|Drinking Gourd||Big Dipper and the North Star|
|Flying bondsmen||The number of escaping slaves|
|Forwarding||Taking slaves from station to station|
|Freedom train||The Underground Railroad|
|French leave||Sudden departure|
|Gospel train||The Underground Railroad|
|Stockholder||Those who donated money, food, clothing.|
|Load of potatoes||Escaping slaves hidden under farm produce in a wagon|
|Operator||Person who helped freedom seekers as a conductor or agent|
|Parcel||Fugitives that were expected|
|Patter roller||Bounty hunter hired to capture slaves|
|Preachers||Leaders of and spokespersons for the Underground Railroad|
|River Jordan||Ohio River|
|Shepherds||People who encouraged slaves to escape and escorted them|
|Station||Place of safety and temporary refuge, a safe house|
|Station master||Keeper or owner of a safe house|
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Revisited Myth #55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to guide escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad.
Few historical myths have beginnings that are as recent or as obvious as the tale of the patchwork code. There is no doubt about who initiated it, who advertised it, and who is making money off of it. We are also aware of the huge body of evidence that is in opposition to it. Due in part to teachers and librarians searching for an innovative approach to teach students about slavery, particularly during the month of February, this myth gained widespread popularity very rapidly (Black History Month).
- Supposedly, the Monkey Wrench design, when hung on a line in the slave quarters, means “Collect your tools and prepare to leave,” according to legend.
- The allegations have not been proved, and they are refuted by the facts; for example, some of the quilt designs that are claimed to contain hidden meanings did not even exist prior to the Civil War.
- When persons like Harriet Tubman and other slaves tell their stories, they make no mention of the quilt code, even when they use the term “quilt” as Tubman did.
- “She (Tubman) never utilized the quilt code,” writes Kate Clifford Larson, a historian and authority on Harriet Tubman, the former slave who returned to Maryland time and time again to assist friends and family from slavery.
- It is not correct, and everyone should be aware of this.
- Some folks did not get any assistance; instead, they just fled and made their way to freedom on their own.” This recurrent fairy tale is just too profitable to be put out of business.
- It is even mutating into other civilizations, which is the most horrifying of all atrocities.
- Each and every one of these claims has been disproved by credible professionals who have been accused of racism on more than one occasion when they have dared to point out the errors.
- For years, Leigh Fellner has studied and published a thorough, remarkable rebuttal of the quilt code myths, which you may read in its full (and with a lot of interest) at.
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Fact or Fiction: Were Quilts Used As Secret Codes for Slaves on the Underground Railroad?
The symbols that are employed in quilting have a convoluted or unknown background, which makes them very interesting. They are now recognized as the designs that distinguish antique quilts as unusual and one-of-a-kind. However, there are many who have long assumed that the symbols employed in quilts of the South during slavery were really utilized as secret signals for slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad, and they are correct in their assumption. The majority of specialists now wonder whether this truly occurred.
courtesy of the Library of Congress
The Underground Railroad
An underground railroad network of abolitionists – both black and white – who assisted enslaved people in their attempts to escape through a network of safe homes and shelters was known as the Underground Railroad (UR). The Underground Railroad was backed by two major religious groups, the Quakers and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, from its inception in the late 1700s and continuing until the passage of the first of the Fugitive Slave Acts in 1793, when it was established. The Underground Railroad, as depicted in an 1893 picture, may have looked somewhat like this.
What if the most unobtrusive method to accomplish this goal was to hang a quilt out on the line?
The Quilt Code
When it comes to slavery, the Underground Railroad was an informal network of anti-slavery activists (both black and white) who assisted slaves in their attempts to escape through a system of safe homes and shelters. The Underground Railroad was backed by two major religious groups, the Quakers and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, from its inception in the late 1700s and continuing until the passage of the first of the Fugitive Slave Acts in 1793. The Underground Railroad, as seen in this 1893 picture, was a means of emancipation from slavery.
Because the Underground Railroad operated until the conclusion of the Civil War, there were decades in opportunity to establish subtle codes and symbols that may have been beneficial.
In no way, shape, or form
Myths About the Underground Railroad
When it comes to teaching African-American Studies today, one of the great delights is the satisfaction that comes from being able to restore to the historical record “lost” events and the persons whose sacrifices and bravery enabled those events to take place, never to be lost again. Among our ancestors’ long and dreadful history of human bondage is the Underground Railroad, which has garnered more recent attention from teachers, students, museum curators, and the tourism industry than any other institution from the black past.
- Nevertheless, in the effort to convey the narrative of this magnificent institution, fiction and lore have occasionally taken precedence over historical truth.
- The sacrifices and valor of our forefathers and foremothers, as well as their allies, are made all the more noble, heroic, and striking as a result.
- I think this is a common misconception among students.
- As described by Wilbur H.
Running slaves, frequently in groups of up to several families, were said to have been directed at night on their desperate journey to freedom by the traditional “Drinking Gourd,” which was the slaves’ secret name for the North Star.
The Railroad in Lore
When it comes to teaching African-American Studies today, one of the great delights is the satisfaction that comes from being able to restore to the historical record “lost” events and the persons whose sacrifices and bravery resulted in those events, which will never be lost again. In recent years, few institutions from our ancestors’ long and dreadful history in human bondage have garnered more attention than the Underground Railroad. It is one of our forefathers’ most venerable and philanthropic innovations, and it is also one of the most well-known and well-received by teachers, students, museum curators, and the tourism industry.
In order to communicate the truth about the past as it truly happened, scholars have put in a great lot of work to distinguish between fact and fiction, which has always been an important component of telling it straight.
When I hear our students talk about the Underground Railroad, I get the impression that they are under the impression that it was something akin to a black, Southern Grand Central Station, with regularly scheduled routes that hundreds of thousands of slave “passengers” used to escape from Southern plantations, aided by that irrepressible, stealthy double agent, Harriet Tubman.
Many people also believe that thousands of benign, incognito white “conductors” routinely hid slaves in secret rooms hidden in attics or basements, or behind the staircases of numerous “safe houses,” the locations of which were coded in “freedom quilts” sewn by slaves and hung in their windows as guideposts for fugitives on the run.
Siebert in his massive pioneering (and often wildly romantic) study, The Underground Railroad(1898), the “railroad” itself was composed of “a chain of stations leading from the Southern states to Canada,” or “a series of hundreds of interlocking ‘lines,’ ” that ran from Alabama or Mississippi, throughout the South, all the way across the Ohio River and Mason-Dixon Line, as the historian David Blight summarizes in Passages: The Underground Railroad, 1838-19 Escaped slaves, many of whom were entire families, were said to be guided at night on their desperate journey to freedom by the traditional “Drinking Gourd,” which was the slaves’ code name for the Northern Star.
A Meme Is Born
As Blight correctly points out, the railroad has proven to be one of the most “enduring and popular strands in the fabric of America’s national historical memory.” Since the end of the nineteenth century, many Americans, particularly in New England and the Midwest, have either made up legends about the deeds of their ancestors or simply repeated stories that they have heard about their forebears.
It’s worth taking a look at the history of the phrase “Underground Railroad” before diving into those tales, though.
Tice Davids was a Kentucky slave who managed to escape to Ohio in 1831, and it is possible that the phrase “Underground Railroad” was invented as a result of his successful escape.
According to Blight, he is believed to have said that Davids had vanished as though “the nigger must have gone off on an underground railroad.” This is a fantastic narrative — one that would be worthy of Richard Pryor — but it is improbable, given that train lines were non-existent at the time.
The fleeing slave from Washington, D.C., who was tortured and forced to testify that he had been taken north, where “the railroad extended underground all the way to Boston,” according to one report from 1839, was captured.
constructed from Mason and Dixon’s to the Canada line, upon which fugitives from slavery might come pouring into this province” is the first time the term appears.
14, 1842, in the Liberator, a date that may be supported by others who claim that abolitionist Charles T. Torrey invented the phrase in 1842, according to abolitionist Charles T. Torrey. As David Blight points out, the phrase did not become widely used until the mid-1840s, when it was first heard.
Myth Battles Counter-Myth
Historically, the appeal of romance and fantasy in stories of the Underground Railroad can be traced back to the latter decades of the nineteenth century, when the South was winning the battle of popular memory over what the Civil War was all about — burying Lost Cause mythology deep in the national psyche and eventually propelling the racist Woodrow Wilson into the White House. Many white Northerners attempted to retain a heroic version of their history in the face of a dominant Southern interpretation of the significance of the Civil War, and they found a handy weapon in the stories of the Underground Railroad to accomplish this goal.
Immediately following the fall of Reconstruction in 1876, which was frequently attributed to purportedly uneducated or corrupt black people, the story of the struggle for independence was transformed into a tale of noble, selfless white efforts on behalf of a poor and nameless “inferior” race.
Siebert questioned practically everyone who was still alive who had any recollection of the network and even flew to Canada to interview former slaves who had traced their own pathways from the South to freedom as part of his investigation.
In the words of David Blight, Siebert “crafted a popular tale of largely white conductors assisting nameless blacks on their journey to freedom.”
Truth Reveals Unheralded Heroism
That’s a little amount of history; what about those urban legends? The answers are as follows: It cannot be overstated that the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement itself were possibly the first examples in American history of a truly multiracial alliance, and the role played by the Quakers in its success cannot be overstated. Despite this, it was primarily controlled by free Northern African Americans, particularly in its early years, with the most notable exception being the famous Philadelphian William Still, who served as its president.
- The Underground Railroad was made possible by the efforts of white and black activists such as Levi Coffin, Thomas Garrett, Calvin Fairbank, Charles Torrey, Harriet Tubman and Still, all of whom were true heroes.
- Because of the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the railroad’s growth did not take place until after that year.
- After all, it was against the law to help slaves in their attempts to emancipate themselves.
- Being an abolitionist or a conductor on the Underground Railroad, according to the historian Donald Yacovone, “was about as popular and hazardous as being a member of the Communist Party in 1955,” he said in an email to me.
- The Underground Railroad was predominantly a phenomena of the Northern United States.
- For the most part, fugitive slaves were left on their own until they were able to cross the Ohio River or the Mason-Dixon Line and thereby reach a Free State.
- For fugitives in the North, well-established routes and conductors existed, as did some informal networks that could transport fugitives from places such as the abolitionists’ office or houses in Philadelphia to other locations north and west.
(where slavery remained legal until 1862), as well as in a few locations throughout the Upper South, some organized support was available.
I’m afraid there aren’t many.
Furthermore, few dwellings in the North were equipped with secret corridors or hidden rooms where slaves might be hidden.
What about freedom quilts?
The only time a slave family had the resources to sew a quilt was to shelter themselves from the cold, not to relay information about alleged passages on the Underground Railroad that they had never visited.
As we will discover in a future column, the danger of treachery about individual escapes and collective rebellions was much too large for escape plans to be publicly shared.5.
No one has a definitive answer.
According to Elizabeth Pierce, an administrator at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, the figure might be as high as 100,000, but that appears to be an overstatement.
We may put these numbers into context by noting that there were 3.9 million slaves and only 488,070 free Negroes in 1860 (with more than half of them still living in the South), whereas there were 434,495 free Negroes in 1850 (with more than half still living in the South).
The fact that only 101 fleeing slaves ever produced book-length “slave narratives” describing their servitude until the conclusion of the Civil War is also significant to keep in mind while thinking about this topic.
However, just a few of them made it to safety.
How did the fugitive get away?
John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, as summarized by Blight, “80 percent of these fugitives were young guys in their teens and twenties who absconded alone on the majority of occasions.
Because of their household and child-rearing duties, young slave women were significantly less likely to flee than older slave women.
Lyford in 1896 reported that he could not recall “any fugitives ever being transported by anyone, they always had to pilot their own canoe with the little help that they received,” suggesting that “the greatest number of fugitives were self-emancipating individuals who, upon reaching a point in their lives when they could no longer tolerate their captive status, finally just took off for what had been a long and difficult journey.” 7.
What is “Steal Away”?
They used them to communicate secretly with one another in double-voiced discussions that neither the master nor the overseer could comprehend.
However, for reasons of safety, privacy, security, and protection, the vast majority of slaves who escaped did so alone and covertly, rather than risking their own safety by notifying a large number of individuals outside of their families about their plans, for fear of betraying their masters’ trust.
Just consider the following for a moment: If fleeing slavery had been thus planned and maintained on a systematic basis, slavery would most likely have been abolished long before the American Civil War, don’t you think?
According to Blight, “Much of what we call the Underground Railroad was actually operated clandestinely by African Americans themselves through urban vigilance committees and rescue squads that were often led by free blacks.” The “Underground Railroad” was a marvelously improvised, metaphorical construct run by courageous heroes, the vast majority of whom were black.
Gara’s study revealed that “running away was a terrible and risky idea for slaves,” according to Blight, and that the total numbers of slaves who risked their lives, or even those who succeeded in escaping, were “not huge.” There were thousands of heroic slaves who were helped by the organization, each of whom should be remembered as heroes of African-American history, but there were not nearly as many as we often believe, and certainly not nearly enough.
Approximately fifty-five of the 100 Amazing Facts will be published on the website African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. On The Root, you may find all 100 facts.