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Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of…
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Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground…

by Jacqueline L. Tobin, Raymond G. Dobard (Author)

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Showing 5 of 5
I bought this book at the gift shop at New Market Battlefield in Virginia. It purports to explain secret codes embedded in quilts and spirituals, supposedly used to convey messages to escaping slaves, but much of it is highly speculative. Neither the contemporary quilts nor the humans involved are around to document or verify the practice of passing information in this fashion. It is well illustrated, but the writing is pretty dry, like a term paper for a required subject. The book does contain worthwhile historical information on quilting patterns and techniques, African fabrics, plantation life, Underground Railroad routes and so on. It includes an excellent time-line of 4 centuries of significant events in the history of slavery. There must be better sources for this information, however. ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Apr 13, 2013 |
OK, so I know its actually a myth (now...)but still interesting and good for tracking down other sources... ( )
  ScoutJ | Mar 31, 2013 |
Interesting topic but disappointing due to the paucity of illustrations. Especially frustrating when authors alluded to quilts pictured in other books
  sdunford | Jul 12, 2010 |
I do not own Hidden in Plain View, nor do I plan to acquire it - ever. I have added this title to my LT catalog only to review it, and to point readers to some resources where they can obtain credible information on the issue of quilts as related to the Underground Railroad.

A quick browse through my catalog will show that I am very interested in historic textiles and the civil war era, including our shameful legacy of slavery. I have a small collection of civil war era quilt tops and blocks, and my sewing room is piled high with reproduction fabrics. Under these circumstances, I can totally understand the impulse to create quilts that represent a significant era in our history, and I have no problem with anyone who wants to create a so-called “underground railroad” quilt as an indication of sympathy for those who endured slavery. However, the author of Hidden in Plain View, and the many pattern designers, quilt shops, and schoolteachers who teach these quilt blocks as historic fact, are (intentionally or not) perpetrating a fraud upon the public. The overall story does not match up with the facts, and several of the quilt block designs cited in the book were not known until well after the civil war.

The problem was compounded when various individuals claiming to be family members of Ozella McDaniel Williams (the source of the story in Hidden in Plain View) went on the lecture tour, expanding on the original story with even more fabrications, often contradicting Williams. In particular, Serena Wilson, a niece of Williams, published an article in Traditional Quiltworks in May 2002, in which she further muddied the waters by adding several quilt block patterns that originated in the 1930s, and by claiming that her grandmother had traveled the south, teaching the so-called “Quilt Code” to slaves.

Well, folks, let’s do the math. The Underground Railroad operated from 1830 until the onset of the Civil War in 1861. Assuming the “grandmother” was old enough to know quilting and to travel around teaching the “quilt code” she must have been, let’s say 15 years old by 1861. Let’s assume she was unusually fertile, and had her last baby at age 40 – that would have been 1886. And let’s assume her daughter also had a child at age 40 – that would be 1926. So the granddaughter in the magazine article would have to be 75 years old as of 2001. Look at the photo in the link above; do you think Serena Wilson is that old?

I am not saying slaves didn't make quilts. Of course they did; they probably made many (if not most) of the beautiful quilts that were used on plantations across the south. But considering the constraints on available material and on free time, and considering their strong traditions of oral history, it seems highly unlikely they would have spent their time making elaborately pieced quilts in specific color patterns, when they could have simply told someone about the routes to follow.

The following online resources discuss the Underground Railroad quilting myth.

The website www.womenfolk.com has a section on quilt myths, including the Underground Railroad quilt myth. Many of the following references are also linked on this site.

Quilt historian Kimberly Wulfert, Ph.D., The Underground Railroad and the Use of Quilts as Messengers for Fleeing Slaves

Giles R. Wright, director of the Afro-American History Program, New Jersey Historical Commission, Trenton, and an expert on the Underground Railroad. Among his publications are the book, Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History (1988), and a pamphlet, “Steal Away, Steal Away:" A Guide to the Underground Railroad in New Jersey (2002). In 2000, Mr. Wright wrote a critique titled: Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, which he presented at a 2001 event co-sponsored by Camden County Historical Society and Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission. Kimberly Wulfert has reproduced an updated version of Mr. Wright’s critique on her website.

More from Giles Wright, including RealPlayer sound tracks, at www.historiccamdencounty.com

Quilt historian Patricia L. Cummings responded to Hidden in Plain View, and to Serena Wilson's article, in An American Quilt Myth: The Secret Quilt Code of the Underground Railroad.

Leigh Fellner at Hart Cottage Quilts has produced a lengthy treatise titled Betsy Ross redux: the Underground Railroad "Quilt Code". She also offers a "Quilt Code" Hall of Shame, highlighting retailers (almost exclusively white) who use slavery, African-Americans, and the "Underground Railroad Quilt Code" as a marketing tool.

Leigh Fellner also provides links to several other sites. The page titled Real history: firsthand accounts of slaves and abolitionists online includes links to African American history collections, quilt museums with collections that include 19th century African American quilts, and an extensive bibliography of resources.

Kris Driessen's article, Putting it in Perspective: The Symbolism of Underground Railroad quilts, discusses the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad, and includes a lengthy bibliography.

African American Quilting: A Long Rich Heritage provides a brief history of African American quilting. The reference list includes links to several publications touching on this issue, including two by Cuesta Benberry, who was a noted African American quiltmaker and quilt historian.

Deborah Foley, Associate Librarian, Huffington Library at Culver Academies, Culver, Indiana has written Young Readers at Risk: Quilt Patterns and the Underground Railroad, in which she discusses the ethics of teaching these quilt myths to schoolchildren. ( )
2 vote oregonobsessionz | Jul 1, 2008 |
I had high hopes for this book. I assumed it would be a great story of the underground railroad. WRONG. It was like a poorly written college textbook. I didn't enjoy it at all. ( )
  Djupstrom | Apr 21, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jacqueline L. Tobinprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dobard, Raymond G.Authormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385497679, Paperback)

When quiltmaker Ozella McDaniels told Jacqueline Tobin of the Underground Railroad Quilt Code, it sparked Tobin to place the tale within the history of the Underground Railroad. Hidden in Plain View documents Tobin and Raymond Dobard's journey of discovery, linking Ozella's stories to other forms of hidden communication from history books, codes, and songs. Each quilt, which could be laid out to air without arousing suspicion, gave slaves directions for their escape. Ozella tells Tobin how quilt patterns like the wagon wheel, log cabin, and shoofly signaled slaves how and when to prepare for their journey. Stitching and knots created maps, showing slaves the way to safety.

The authors construct history around Ozella's story, finding evidence in cultural artifacts like slave narratives, folk songs, spirituals, documented slave codes, and children's' stories. Tobin and Dobard write that "from the time of slavery until today, secrecy was one way the black community could protect itself. If the white man didn't know what was going on, he couldn't seek reprisals." Hidden in Plain View is a multilayered and unique piece of scholarship, oral history, and cultural exploration that reveals slaves as deliberate agents in their own quest for freedom even as it shows that history can sometimes be found where you least expect it. --Amy Wan

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:31:57 -0400)

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Tobin met Ozella Williams in the Old Market Building in Charleston, South Carolina, and learned of the oral tradition and coded quilts used to navigate escapes on the Underground Railroad.

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