CRITIQUE: Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad

[This is the text of the two-page printed statement distributed by Giles Wright at the June 4, 2001 Underground Railroad Day at the Camden County Historical Society. Mr. Wright was the keynote speaker at that event.]

As someone keenly interested in the Underground Railroad (UGRR), especially its history in New Jersey, I felt compelled to write this critique of Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad.

Slave Quilts_rebuttal

Photo: Hoag Levins

Historian Giles R. Wright is the Director of the New Jersey Historical Commission's Afro-American History Program and the author of a number of books and other publications on the subject of black history.
I was concerned that this study greatly misrepresents the operation of the UGRR; it gives those who know very little about black American history in general and the UGRR in particular a distorted view of this form of slave protest. The UGRR, shrouded as it is already in many myths and legends, hardly needs another. And as I encountered many who had read this book, all of whom believed its argument, I became convinced that the making of another UGRR myth was already under way. This critique seeks to help in reversing this process.

There are many reasons why I reject the central thesis of Hidden in Plain View: that quilts were used to send coded messages to UGRR participants. Among these reasons are the following:

  1. Neither of the co-authors is a black historian. In order to write knowledgeably about the UGRR, you must first be a student of the large black historical experience in which the story of the UGRR is located. Jacqueline L. Tobin teaches women studies at the University of Denver; Dr. Raymond G. Dobard is an art/quilt historian at Howard University. Neither is therefore really equipped to discuss the Underground Railroad. The book's many factual errors,

    Slave Quilts_rebuttal
    Published in 1999 by Doubleday, Hidden in Plain View purports to tell the story of a secret quilt-based communications system used by slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad.
    ones that would never be made by even a novice in the field of African American history, reveal this. I'll cite only three. First, Richard Allen established in 1816 the AME Church, not the "Bethel AME Church" (see page 60). Second, on page 62 the co-authors write: "In 1871... William Still, a free black in Philadelphia and a famous conductor..." This reference makes no sense because (a) slavery was outlawed in Philadelphia in 1780 and (b) the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. Also, Still was a "stationmaster," not a "conductor" like his friend Harriet Tubman. Third, George Rawick did not compile oral history interviews of former slaves in the 1930s as part of a WPA project (see page 62). Rawick, a well-known slave historian, was in fact born in 1929.

  2. Aside from the oral testimony of Ozella McDaniel Williams, the book offers no documentation for its thesis, relying instead on sheer conjecture and speculation in its lack of fidelity to historical truth. While I would be indeed the last person to discount the value of oral testimony, the oral tradition relied on here needs, I think, corroborating historical evidence. The two most obvious sources offer none: (a) the 19th century "slave narratives" and (b) the oral testimonies taken from former slaves in the 1930s. Similarly, the classic UGRR studies of William Still (1872) and Wilbur H. Siebert (1898). Doesn't it also seem strange that, according to the book, no one in the black community seemed interested in Williams's testimony? And why weren't others in this community in possession of the same oral tradition that Williams related? Isn't it likely that Williams was putting Tobin on? Williams's story is nice and appealing, but it defies logic; it doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.

  3. Contrary to popular belief, the overall number of UGRR runaways was very small, a tiny fraction of the total slave population. Nowhere in the book is this indicated. The book in fact provides no figures for the total number of UGRR participants. This is a crucial omission. Why? Because in order for the use of quilts to send coded message to UGRR runaways to make any sense, a large number of UGRR participants is required. Otherwise, why go to such lengths to devise so elaborate a system of encoded quilts for a mere handful of runaways? But a handful of runaways is precisely what we have in this book. This is because the book focuses on UGRR fugitive slaves coming out of Charleston. The number of such persons would have to be small for three simple reasons. First, most UGRR participants came from Moussouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia -- the slave states closest to the North. (Maryland, for example, was the source of the slaves that Harriet Tubman guided to freedom.) South Carolina therefore was not a major source of UGRR participants. Second, since the book's narrow focus is on UGRR participants coming out of Charleston, not out of South Carolina, the number of fugitive slaves under consideration is further reduced. Third, and of critical importance, most runaway slaves did not head north as part of the UGRR but remained in the South. Some, for example, fled to outlyer (maroon) communities, while others went into southern cities where they attempted to pass as free blacks. Charleston was the destination for many runaway slaves. Thus, we have a seemingly contradictory image of Charleston. On one hand, according to the unsubstantiated documentation offered in Hidden in Plain View, it was a city from which presumably at least considerable numbers of slaves were fleeing to head north as part of the Underground Railroad. On the other hand, based on an important source of primary documentation -- runaway slaves notices -- we know for a fact that it was a city to which many a fugitive fled and tried to assume the identity of a free black.

  4. Fugutive slaves coming out of South Carolina who used the Underground Railroad usually headed in a northeasterly direction and not towards Cleveland as Hidden in Plain View asserts. Indeed, there were essentially two UGRR corridors. The western one involved slaves from such states as Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. They, in a manner similar to 20th century black migrants, tended to head towards such states as Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Runaways from states along the Atlantic coastline tended to follow the coastline (the eastern corridor) and come into Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York (some settled in these states) before heading usually to Canada. Thus it appears that South Carolinian slaves most likely would have traveled up the coastline rather than crossed the Appalachian Mountains and gone to Cleveland. Still's 1872 The Underground Rail Road documents the use of the eastern corridor by fugitive slaves from South Carolina -- their travel to Philadelphia. In fact, interesting enough, even the UGRR map in Hidden in Plain View shows no route leading from Charleston to Cleveland (see page across from page 50). It should also be noted that the co-authors never tell us whether the system of encoded quilt messages they offer was unique to Charleston; they are silent on the system's existence in other parts of the antebellum South. Why?

  5. Not all UGRR participants engaged in making very detailed plans before their flight. Hidden in Plain View seems to assume that UGRR participants planned their escape over a considerable period of time that allowed them to learn the ten-point quilt code. Recent scholarship pertaining to fugitive slaves suggests that running away was much more complex than this, motivated as it was by various causes. In some cases fugitive slaves, out of necessity, ran away immediately. This reduced further the number of Charleston runaways who would have used the encoded quilt system outlined in Hidden in Plain View.

  6. We are never told in Hidden in Plain View who created and operated the encoded quilt system. Who made the quilts and hung them? Was it free blacks living in the South? Was it other slaves? The book does not comment on the great risks for either group -- another crucial omission. Why wouldn't communication with potential UGRR fugitives be done verbally? What would be the logic of using quilts to communicate messsages to slaves anyway? Any understanding of how the slave community functioned makes an assumption of this kind absurd. Many other questions about the UGRR are also conspicuously left unanswered. When were the fugitives most likely to travel (e.g., time of day/year)? Were they likely to travel alone? What is the profile of the typical UGRR participant (e.g., age, gender)? What was the success rate? What were the penalties for being caught? I suspect the co-authors never addressed these questions because their lack of familiarity with the history/historiography of the UGRR. Their book indeed tells us precious little about the UGRR, except that quilts were used to direct escaping slaves. I believe the book's only contribution is to document that which we already know: Afro-American quilts were greatly influenced by African textile designs and thus exemplify African cultural continuities found among black Americans. Finally, two sentences (see page 85) reveal much about the competence of the co-authors to reconstruct the black past:

    "On the plantation, the monkey wrench was a tool used primarily by the blacksmith, since there were no plumbers during slavery. In Africa, too, the monkey wrench was used primarily by the blacksmith and was therefore an honored tool."
    The co-authors seem unaware that the monkey wrench was invented in this country around 1850. How could it then have been so significant of a tool on antebellum plantations? And, given this time frame, for what purpose would its use in Africa have made it an "honored" tool?

All Rights Reserved © 2001, Hoag Levins
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