In the weeks since the story aired, we received feedback from people around the country that challenged the very foundation of Kemp’s exhibit and called the quilt code a “myth.”
One email read “the story about quilt codes is about as real as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree.”
Another read “You've been scammed. There is not one shred of evidence that codes were used in quilts and it is an insult to African-Americans that they would need secret codes on quilts from patterns that didn't even exist in America at that time. Reputable, scholarly quilt historians do not subscribe to this fable.”
In 1999, Jacqueline Tobin and
Raymond Dobard published Hidden
in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. The
book brought the subject to national attention.
But the book was heavily scrutinized by academics and quilt historians. Barbara Brackman, a quilt expert from Kansas contributed her
own criticisms of the quilt code in her book Facts and
Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery.
Brackman has a variety of reasons for her dispute with the quilt code
claim, but says that many of the quilt patterns cited by those who support the
code’s legitimacy were introduced post-Civil War, and thus could not have been
used to help slaves along the Underground Railroad.
“Many of the patters that they used for the story—the idea that a
double wedding ring means you’re better off married, a sailboat quilt means if
you’re going to escape you should think about water, a drunkard’s path means
that you should use a zigzag manner of walking–all of these patterns and their
names come from way after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War,”
“Drunkard’s path quilts date from the 1880s and the sailboat quilt
dates from the 1920s or ‘30s. So not only are the patterns nonexistent—as far
as anyone who is interested in quilt history and can date quilts and know what
to look for—the patterns just could not have existed. They were generated in
Brackman also cited a lack of tangible documentation as another reason
for her suspicions of the quilt codes.
When asked to respond to the Brackman’s criticisms and those we
received following our original story on her exhibit, Teresa Kemp said she and
her family have dealt with these types of disputes for many years. She said
with the artifacts and oral history passed down to her, she has no reason to
question her family’s claims.
“My mother knew the abolitionists Peter and Eliza Farrow. She knew their son Peter Farrow. She knew their daughter, who is Nora, my
mother’s grandmother. She knew her mother.
I knew her mother. And I know my mother. Why should I think that
crossing those generations that the physically artifacts that they left me,
that I had in the exhibit, are not true?” says Kemp.
Kemp said she has been collecting resource material from a variety of
places to reinforce her claim regarding the quilt code. She hopes to publish a
book in the future to finally link her family’s history to it.
“I went back to the 1830s—in fact I even have copies of original documents
from the 1600s from the British. I have
copies of videos that describe the same techniques here in America.
"I can pull those documents up on JSTOR and I’ve
reached out to many universities and spoke at many universities and collected information
from their archives for my book so I would be able to present this case and say,
‘This is what these people do. Here’s the proof that these people were brought
to America.,’” said Kemp.
“We have copies of the plantation documents, wills, slave valuements—two
wills, 1844 and 1858—‘Here’s the proof that these Ibo people were here in
America with their language, with their culture, sewing techniques and metal smithing
techniques and I’m descendant of them by blood, by DNA.’ I mean, what more do I need?”
As for a definitive conclusion to the debate, it remains
unresolved. Dr. Marjorie Fuller, the
Director of WVU’s Center for Black Culture and Research, says it is possible
that the quilt code does in fact exist, but that the nature of the debate keeps
the quilt code out of history text books.
“The Underground Railroad was a secret mechanism for getting
slaves to the north or to—what people don’t realize a lot of times—to the
mountains of West Virginia, out west, and other places where slavery was not
enforced. So, when we said that there were codes in quilts, we were very aware
of that fact—all of us who study this and all of us who have been a part of the
study of slavery and its eradication,” said Fuller.
“But, because the nature of it and the nature of historical
documentation, we cannot absolutely, historically prove it because it was never
documented in a way that would allow it to make it into the history books.
However, that does not mean that it did not really exist.
"As a student of
African American history and a professor of the Underground Railroad seminar,
I’m very aware of the fact that oral history in our culture is just as
important as historical documentation. That is in fact, in many instances, our
As has been the case for the past decade, the debate will