WINTHROP — A quilt hung over a clothesline or folded just so on a windowsill may have been a means of silent communication to runaway slaves traveling the Underground Railroad.
Or was it?
There may be as many as 75 Underground Railroad sites in Maine, private homes and public graveyards where slaves stopped to rest and hide as they traveled north.
These slaves, as Harriet Tubman urged, quite literally followed the North Star to Canada, and many think these escaped slaves had help from sympathetic quilters along their journey.
Helen Neff of Winthrop believes slaves relied on these quilts for information about safe paths, where to find food and water and how to avoid being detected. It’s all in the stitching.
For instance, a flying geese pattern may have helped identify a path north in the spring, matching the migration of Canada geese.
Likewise, a bear paw pattern directed runaways along mountain paths used by bears, where food and water was usually plentiful, and the trail was out of sight.
A sailboat pattern may have signified water or boats nearby.
A shoo-fly pattern indicated someone in the direct vicinity who could help guide runaways, and who also knew and could interpret local quilt codes.
In the South, as slaves waited for a signal to flee, a quilt featuring a so-called monkey wrench design hung on a clothesline served as code for “gather all your tools, including your knowledge and cunning,” and prepare to leave, according to Neff.
Neff, a retired accountant and avid seamstress, took up quilting years ago. She read “Hidden in Plain View, A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad,” based on an elderly woman’s recollection of her family’s flight north, written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard. Afterward, Neff researched the possibility that quilts served as intricate, colorful maps used to navigate the Underground Railroad for more than three decades.
She’s quilted a number of these codes into a 12-panel quilt modeled after a sampler created by California quilter and author Eleanor Burns, and makes presentations in the community about the message and meaning of these early American quilts.
“I believe very firmly that this is all true,” Neff said, despite knowing there is criticism of the theory among some quilters and historians.
The theory that slaves communicated through spirituals is well accepted, and Neff said she sees the same messages delivered through needle and thread.
For instance, "Wade in the Water," an early African-American spiritual believed to have been sung by Tubman, warned runaways that tracking dogs were set loose and they ought to find water to disguise their trail.
A quilt pattern called drunkard’s path is also believed to have served as a warning for runaways to take a zigzag path to avoid detection by slave hunters and their dogs.
Neff will talk about these theories at a presentation March 6 in Augusta and display quilts containing some of the better-known slave codes.
“It was quite a communication system,” she said, that may have differed from region to region, but was impressively effective in its simplicity.
“It makes sense,” she said, “because the quilt can be hung outside or hung on a sill of a window, and people passing through see it, get the message and spread the word,” Neff said.
But Mark Cheetham of Richmond, a respected historian who has written extensively about the facts and legends of the Underground Railroad in Maine, specifically in the Topsham and Brunswick area, is not so sure the quilted slave codes are anything more than legend.
At the time the Underground Railroad was operating (estimated to be between 1830 and 1862), Cheetham said the penalties for helping runaways were severe, and it was unlikely that homeowners would have openly advertised the fact that they were helping guide railroad traffic because they could have been punished, along with their families and the slaves caught on their properties.
There’s no question many people helped slaves move through the underground, Cheetham said, but he finds it hard to believe they would have been overtly displaying symbols of those efforts that could be easily interpreted by authorities and slave owners.
Neff is aware that some believe the slave codes to be pure folklore, but much has been written by scholars and historians acknowledging quilts could have been used to send messages or identify safe houses. It’s a topic Neff believes is worth continued discussion about how or if this system of communication ever existed along the Underground Railroad in Maine.
For more information about the Underground Railroad route here, including a map of stops throughout western and central Maine along that route, go to portlandfreedomtrail.org.
AUGUSTA — Quilter Helen Neff of Winthrop will make a presentation on quilts used to communicate with slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 6, at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 2 Summer St.
Quilts were believed to have been used to direct runaway slaves on their journey north, from South Carolina up through Maine and into Canada. Neff's presentation will also include information on slave spirituals, with piano accompaniment by Caro Kaiser.
The program is free of charge and handicap accessible. FMI: 622-2424.