Massachusetts Keeps a Slavery Myth Alive

Why hasn't the state removed an urban legend on its website relating to the Underground Railroad?

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... black later came to have a different meaning on the Underground Railroad. When runaway slaves trying to escape to the North saw a quilt with black fabric hanging on a clothesline or airing in a window, they knew they could safely stop at that house. If the popular 'Log Cabin' design had a black square in the center instead of the usual red (representing a fireplace), it signaled a safe house. Other patterns, such as 'Jacob's Ladder,' sent the same signal. Quilts conveyed secret messages in the Underground Railroad Quilt Code.


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The passage went on to assert:  

Quilts with zigzag patterns such as "Drunkard's Path" told escapees to take an indirect route and double back in order to escape slave catchers. "Drunkards weave back and forth, never moving in a straight line," Williams said. A star meant to follow the North Star. The "Flying Geese" pattern instructed the fleeing slaves to head north in the springtime, just like geese. Although the pattern has triangles pointing north, east, south, and west, the quilter made one set a different color, thus showing which way to go. Even the stitches told what paths to take. "The length of the stitches and the position of the stitches formed a language that only the slave would know," said Williams. The quilts became maps and helped many slaves escape to freedom.

The author of the passage, Susan Goldman Rubin, is an artist and fiction writer with no training in history. She told The Root that she believed her research for her 2004 book Art Against the Odds, from which the passage was taken, was based, in part, on the work of authors and academics such as Jacqueline L. Tobin, Raymond G. Dobard and Gladys-Marie Fry

Rubin writes for a living, and I appreciate that. She wrote about quilts and fugitive slaves because she could sell the book, and probably she believed it was true. But, she is neither a scholar nor a historian, and in the years since her book was published every professional historian who has written on this subject has exposed slave quilts as a fraud. As Gates noted, the stories of quilts and the Underground Railroad remain a persistent, annoying and totally fabricated myth of American history and African-American history. Books like the one from which this passage came, and the Massachusetts test question, both serve to perpetuate this mythology.        

The fault here is partially with the author for writing about history without doing any serious research about it, but more fault lies with the Massachusetts Department of Education, which used the work in 2008 without asking any scholars about its accuracy. By then the mythology of slave quilts had been exposed. 

Logic Is Defied

It is odd that anyone who thought seriously about this issue could believe these stories. There are two versions of this myth. One is that kindhearted white people all over the South put these quilts up to help slaves run away. The other story, told by Massachusetts and the Random House book, is that slaves put these quilts up themselves. Both are patently ridiculous on their face.