Massachusetts Keeps a Slavery Myth Alive

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

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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.

To believe these stories we must first believe that slaves (and some sympathetic whites) all over the South knew about these quilt codes. We are supposed to believe this, even though these slaves were overwhelmingly illiterate, had never met one another and had probably never traveled more than a few miles from where they lived — except when they were sold and transported to new owners.

We are also supposed to believe that slaves born in the United States — of parents and grandparents who were born in the U.S. or the American colonies — had vast knowledge of African symbolism. When most slaves started to escape, starting in the 1830s, the overwhelming majority of Southern slaves were American-born, as were their parents and grandparents. All the colonies stopped importing slaves at the beginning of the Revolution. After the Revolution about 60,000 to 70,000 slaves were legally imported between 1803 and 1808, and perhaps another 10,000 or so illegally imported after that. But this was a tiny drop in the bucket of the millions of slaves living in the U.S. from 1830 to 1860.