COLUMN: Fact and fiction of slave quilt codes

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Posted: Saturday, February 8, 2014 4:30 pm

On the legend of King Arthur, Winston Churchill once said, “It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides.” To Churchill, the Arthurian legends were just so beautiful they had to be true, and even if they weren’t, they should be. It’s like that in studying history sometimes. There is the truth, the events and facts of what actually happened based on historical records and evidence, and then there is what we believe happened, or more importantly to us, what we wish to believe happened.

In the early 1990s, a story began that quilts sewn by slaves in the South actually contained a “code” in their geometric patterns that supplied information to escaping slaves using the Underground Railroad. The slaves supposedly hung the quilts outside so that escaping slaves could “read” the patterns. It’s a colorful story that inspires us to imagine slaves secretly aiding other slaves in their escape under the very noses of their masters. The problem is that this story is now believed to be untrue.

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