Secret Paths to Freedom

Red and white quilt

Drunkard's Path Patten

The issue of the slave quilt-code, or of telling quilts is a controversial one in African American history. One side argues that freed slaves and others used coded designs in quilts to give directions to slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. The other side, primarily historians of quilting, argues that there is no proof to back this up and the supporting quilt analyses are flawed.

Though the OAAHM acknowleges both sides of the debate, the received history of these quilts from the Berry family is that they were, in fact, telling quilts. The quilts were sewn by members of the Berry family in the mid 19th century, using patterns that had double meanings. Both the Drunkard's Path and the Dresden Plate are patterns that appear in quilts across the country, and usually for purely aesthetic reasons.  The story of the telling quilt, however, is that one of these quilts seen hung over a fence or a porch would provide secret directions of paths to follow or directions to go in order to escape slave holding regions.

Codes like these would be especially relevant in border-states like Missouri. Kansas, a free state, is around two days journey by foot, so directions to safe paths or warnings against heavily patroled areas were extremely necessary. The triumph of will shown by freed African Americans who displayed these codes is a testament to their commitment to freedom. By assisting slaves escape to freedom, these already freed people risked the health and safety of themselves and their families.

White quilt with geometric pattern

Dresden Plate Pattern