I have been fascinated by the story of the American Underground Railway since reading Colson Whitehead’s book ‘The Underground Railway’, in which he tells of a young slave, Cora, and her treacherous journey North to freedom. Whilst fiction, Whitehead gives us lots of information about the ‘safe’ houses used by the herioine, and the roads she travelled. So when Sylvia asked for someone to Blog about the American Slave ‘Code’ Quilts – I jumped at the chance to research the background to this American history.

In Barbara Brackman’s book ‘Facts & Fabrications – Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery’, she discusses the facts behind the Railroad and the ‘fibs’ behind the Slave Quilt Codes. As she succinctly puts it – there is no documentary evidence to back up the stories told of the ‘Codes’. Heresay and Chinese Whispers abound – but these stories are just that – ‘stories’!

Brackman’s research proves that the African women did, indeed, make quilts whilst still living in Africa before being enslaved and shipped to the Americas. They often used symbols in their designs. In her book, Brackman described several Blocks showing these symbols that were used in the making of these quilts. She also dates some of the various Blocks, said to be these Codes, showing that they were not even designed until the late 1800s/early 1900s.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, is a Historian, Teacher and Film-maker and was historical consultant to the film version of ’12 Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup. In Gates’ article about ‘Who Really Ran the Underground Railway?’ he states – “Few institutions from the black past have attracted more attention recently from teachers, students, museum curators and the tourism industry than the Underground Railroad, one of the most venerable and philanthropic innovations in our ancestors’ long and dreadful history in human bondage. But in the zeal to tell the story of this great institution, legend and lore have sometimes overwhelmed historical facts.”

Gates debunked one of these ‘stories’ – Slaves created so-called “freedom quilts” and hung them at the windows of their homes to alert escaping fugitives to the location of safe houses and secure routes north to freedom……..

– Freedom quilts? Simply put, this is one of the oddest myths propagated in all of African-American history. If a slave family had the wherewithal to make a quilt, they used it to protect themselves against the cold, and not to send messages about supposed routes on the Underground Railroad in the North, where they had never been! However, sometimes, on occasion, messages of all sorts were given out at black church gatherings and prayer meetings, but not about the day and time that Harriet Tubman* would be coming to town. The risk of betrayal about individual escapes and collective rebellions was far too great for escape plans to be widely shared.

*Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved people, family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She was born on 29 January, 1822, Dorchester County, Maryland and died 10 March, 1913, Auburn, New York. Her real name was Araminta Ross.

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For those people who may not have heard about Slave ‘Code’ Quilts – they were said to have been made by Slaves (mainly captured and transported from Africa), working on the Plantations, and in domestic slavery, in the USA both prior, and during, the Amercan Civil War years of 1861 to 1865 – before the 13th Amendment Passed by Congress on 31 January, 1865, and ratified on 6 December, 1865, abolished Slavery.

Often, the White Slave Owners’ wives cut and sewed Quilt Blocks and then passed them to their women slaves to finish the harder work of making up the Quilts. Slaves also fashioned Quilts using scraps of cloth garnered from their own clothes, flour sacks and sometimes the old discarded clothes of the Plantation owners. There is documentary and photographic evidence of these Quilts in Museums throughout the USA showing that these Quilts were often ‘passed down’ to family members. There is an exhibition of these Quilts in the Plymouth Historical Museum, Plymouth, Michigan.

Over the past 10 years or so, the story that the Slave Quilts were used as ‘Maps’, using Codes to help Slaves trying to escape and make their way North to Freedom, has gained momentum and the more it is repeated the more it has begun to be ’embedded” into American history.

There are many Blocks that are said to show the routes, and obstacles, and I have chosen 10 Blocks that appear most often in the writings. Not only will I put forward the information about the ‘Codes’, but I will attempt to make each of the Blocks I have found during my investigation. With a bit of luck I should end up with enough Blocks to put together a ‘Code’ Quilt of my own! I look forward to having you along for the journey and seeing your interpretations of the various Blocks.

1. Block No 1 – Monkey Wrench

During my research I found that many of the fabrics used were stripes and checks. I have managed to find several old cotton shirts with these patterns, and along with some plains, will endeavour to make an authentically designed Quilt. Starting with the Monkey Wrench Block.

The ‘said’ meaning of this Block is: Get ready. Gather the tools you’ll need to build shelters, navigate the journey, or to defend yourself.

This block measures 12 by 12 inches, trimmed, using ¼ inch seams throughout.

To make –You need a selection of dark and light fabrics. I have used fabrics cut from old cotton shirts. Take two rectangles of fabric 12 x 6 inches (one dark and one light)

Pin them together and measure and mark a line down the centre. Then mark a line from the top of this line to the RHS corner and then repeat, to the LHS corner as picture.

Sew 1/4inch both sides of the two lines and cut along the pencil line and then cut down the centre. This makes the four corners.

Press open the four squares.

Now take two 3 x 12 inch strips (1 of each colour) and sew together along one of the long sides. Cut the strip into four pieces so that you have both colours in each strip, press flat.

Take one corner piece and sew one of the strips to one side. Sew the other side of the strip to the next corner piece (see photo), repeat with the other two corner pieces.

Cut a 3 inch square in the light colour (for the centre). Join the remaining two strips to either end of the central square. Sew this strip of 5 squares to the four corner pieces – see photo.

Press flat and you have your first Block.


  1. Sue Burford Post author

    Comment received via PM to me regarding this piece…….That is really interesting I am taken in with it, well done Sue. Really thinking about getting the books, and will do your first block. I love reading about anything like this, very impressed.xx