In 2007, an image on the pedestal of a statue of the famous black statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass triggered a controversy over the historical accuracy of the event it depicted. The image of a slave quilt was intended to honor the bravery of "conductors" along the Underground Railroad, a grassroots effort to help Southern slaves escape to the northern free states or Canada. Over the years, a type of noble mythology surrounding the Underground Railroad has arisen along with the historical facts. One possibly apocryphal story involves the use of quilt codes, secret symbols said to be sewn into quilts and displayed outside sympathetic homes as signals for escaping slaves.
The story of the quilt codes is believed to have been revealed through interviews with former slaves or their descendants during the 1930s. According to these accounts, either slaves employed as housekeepers or sympathetic white abolitionists would sew different quilt codes into their quilts and hang them outside, ostensibly to air them out. Slave owners might not have noticed the significance of the designs, but slaves planning an escape through the Underground Railroad were said to know the quilt codes by heart. Many of the designs were brought over from Africa, so even the least educated slave could decipher the meaning of the quilt codes with little confusion.
Allegedly, certain quilt codes would be displayed in a specific order to allow slaves enough time to prepare for escape. The first quilt codes, called the "Monkey Wrench," would tell slaves it was time to gather up their tools necessary for survival. The second of these quilt codes would be a "Wagon Wheel," which told the slaves to pack up their supplies as if packing for a wagon trip. From that point on, the quilt codes were often changed to provide specific information escaping slaves would need to know along the way. A design called "Bear's Paw," for example, was supposedly a reminder to follow the same trail a bear would in order to find food and water in the mountains.
Other quilt codes, such as "Bow ties" or "Britches" would tell escaped slaves to dress more formally or to don a disguise. A jagged design called "The Drunkard's Path" suggested that a slave should move in unpredictable directions to throw off local bounty hunters. If an escaped slave needed to find a safe house for food or shelter, certain quilt codes such as "Log Cabin" or "Shoo-fly" were said to designate sympathetic members of the Underground Railroad or free blacks who were familiar with the system. Other quilt codes would remind escaped slaves which direction to follow, as in the case of "Flying Geese" or "Stars."
While the story of the quilt codes appears to fit with the known historical facts of the Underground Railroad, there are some inherent problems. Some of the quilting patterns assigned to the quilt codes were not invented until after the years of the Civil War, most specifically "Bow Ties," which doesn't appear in quilting journals until the 1950s. Other quilting patterns such as "Flying Geese" or "Monkey Wrench" do not appear to be particularly useful as shorthand, since migrating geese rarely fly at night and the tool known as a monkey wrench was not invented until the 1850s. While it's very plausible that sympathetic "conductors" on the Underground Railroad may have hung out quilts or other banners as secret symbols, it would be impractical to have 17 different quilts containing all of the alleged quilt codes in one home.
The tradition of the quilt codes is believed to be based largely on the recollections of a slave's daughter, who recounted the story to a children's book author. The story of quilt codes was further popularized through the efforts of influential black television show host Oprah Winfrey and others looking for stories, real or apocryphal, surrounding the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. The story of the quilt codes does provide a satisfying sidebar to a very important historical and social event, even if the details prove to be more apocryphal than historically accurate.