African American Quilts and the Underground  Railroad



According to Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, African textile motifs and indigenous writing symbols were integrated into African American quilts. Writing systems such as vai (Liberia) and nsibidi (Nigeria) converged with adinkra  symbols (Ghana), nkisi charms(Congo) adire patterns (Yoruba) and kuba designs (Congo).  "Geometric patterns, abstract designs, strip piecing, bold colors and distinctive stitches" were some of the elements of encoding. Various African- derived secret codes were embedded in the designs.The quilts were  at the center of the resistance  movement associated with  the underground movement in the resistance against enslavement. According to Ozella, ten designs were used to  communicate with  other enslaved Africans,  alert them  about the mode of escape and give escape directions. Among these designs were the following:


The Monkey Wrench
The Wagon Wheel
The Tumbling Boxes


The quilted patterns were metaphors and signs. The Tumbling Box meant that it was time to escape. One at a time the ten patterns were placed on a nearby fence.



See Jacqueline Tobin, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, Anchor Books, 2000


Gloria Emeagwali