(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.
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.
Furthermore, the slaves brought in during the Colonial period (before 1775) and between 1803 and 1808 came from all over Africa. Some were from the West Coast, some from East Africa and many from Central Africa. They spoke scores of different languages, practiced many different religions and had many, many different cultures. There were no "African symbols" that all of them shared.
Finally if we are to believe this myth, we must assume a number of other things, most of which are nonsensical.
First, we are supposed to believe that enslaved African Americans had the time to make elaborate, specific quilts, and also that they had the materials including the various colored cloth to make them. Then we must believe that once they made these quilts, they did not use them for warmth and comfort, but hung them outside for the occasional fugitive to see.
Second, we are supposed to believe that these slaves, most of whom were illiterate, had no access to maps and had rarely traveled more than a few miles from their homes, possessed very specific knowledge of terrain, rivers and roads that would be useful to a slave who was from somewhere else, who was running past their home.
Third, we are supposed to believe that only slaves (and sometimes sympathetic whites) knew about these symbols on the quilts, and that slave owners, local sheriffs and professional slave catchers had no knowledge of these quilts or what they meant.
Can anyone who thinks seriously about the difficulty of running away from slavery believe any of this? Of course not! But the Massachusetts Department of Education believed the myth, puts its prestigious imprimatur on it and still passes it off to students and teachers around the nation as nonfiction, by keeping the passage up on its website. Hopefully, the state of Massachusetts will remove this fairy tale story from its site and replace it with a public apology.
The difficulty of escaping from slavery was huge. It took brains, guts and tremendous good luck to make it to the North. Let's start teaching the truth about the brave slaves who ran away, the many free blacks and the occasional whites who helped them. While we are at it, let's teach about the pro-slavery provisions of the U.S. Constitution, which required that fugitive slaves be "delivered up" to their owners.
Let's teach about the two federal laws that put the power and might of the U.S. government at the beck and call of slave catchers. Let's teach about the scores of blacks and whites in the North who were arrested and prosecuted by the federal government for helping fugitive slaves. Let's teach about the handful of whites who went to jail in the South for helping fugitive slaves.
But let's stop telling fairy tales about quilts and secret codes and other nonsense that never happened.
Paul Finkelman, Ph.D., is the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School in New York. He received his B.A. from Syracuse University and his Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Chicago. He has written numerous books and articles on slavery and the problem of fugitive slaves in American law.