Massachusetts Keeps a Slavery Myth Alive

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

(The Root) — Last week Amy S. Erickson, the master teacher and academic coordinator at New Millennium Academy in Minneapolis, sent me a link to a “nonfiction” reading comprehension test (pdf) for sixth-graders from the Massachusetts Department of Education. The “nonfiction” exercise was about quilts and the Underground Railroad. The passage, titled “Women’s Quilts as Art” (pdf), maintained that people who helped slaves escape from the South to the North and Canada used the quilts to show directions to freedom. Erickson was certain this article was not true and wanted some backup.

She was right — as The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., wrote in a recent Amazing Facts column, the coded quilts are mythical — but when I found out the context of this issue, I thought it was necessary to do more than just answer her question. The use of this test, by hundreds or even thousands of educators, needed to be examined and publicly discussed.

A Standard-Bearer Errs

Every year states produce comprehensive tests to measure the growth and achievement of their students. The tests are given in one year, but then remain on the Web for many years, to be reused by educators around the country. The whole nation knows that Massachusetts has one of the best state education systems, and its tests are considered reliable, a fact that Erickson noted. That is as it should be, since public schooling began in Massachusetts in the 1630s, and the father of the modern public school system was Horace Mann, the Boston reformer, abolitionist, state superintendent of education and congressman. 

The Massachusetts English Language Arts, Reading Comprehension test for sixth-graders has sections on biography, poetry, fiction, drama and nonfiction. The passages in them are used once in tests, and then retired. A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Education confirmed that the slave-quilt passage and related test questions hadn’t been used since 2008. However, old tests are posted online, where they are reused by teachers throughout the state and nation as practice tests and teaching tools. Teachers rely on the Massachusetts tests for their high quality. Tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of children throughout America read the passages and then take a short test on what they read.

Fiction Passes for Nonfiction

So, what do we do when Massachusetts disseminates and spreads the absurd myth about quilts and runaway slaves in its “nonfiction” section? Nonfiction can be history, biography, economics, science, anthropology or even political analysis. It cannot be a fairy tale, a myth, fiction or some popular fantasy. The quilt story is just as true as Peter Pan, Snow White or Harry Potter. 

The author of the section used by Massachusetts wrote:

The slaves made two kinds of quilts: some based on European American designs and others with their own patterns. Africans who had been captured and enslaved came from many countries and spoke different languages. They handed on their traditions by telling stories and making quilts. According to scholars, some African quilts communicate information in a secret code. A cross shaped like an X, for example, signifies a crossroads.

The author later asserted the following about the use of the color black on a quilt:

… 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.