All About A Quilt

I’ve been following with great interest Ralph Luker’s recent series of posts over at Cliopatria on the myth of slave quilts.  I am interested in this mainly because I don’t know anything about it.  Apparently there is a long-standing myth that slaves were guided north by following signs that were stitched into quilts.  This myth was accepted in 2005 by a graduate student and his advisor at UNLV who encouraged his student to pursue this story even after it was revealed that it could not be verified based on the available evidence.  The advisor posted a notice on H-Net for help in finding evidence:

The original quilts have by now disintegrated, and apparently there are very few
first hand accounts of how quilts were used in practice. What I’m looking for,
then, are references to quilt-use in popular literature. Do you know of any
novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc, from the antebellum period that in
some way mention quilts in association with the underground railroad or the
abolition movement in general?

In response historians such as David Blight explained why there is no evidence, buts still the thesis went forward.  Blight and Paul Finkelman offer additional comments on all of this at H-Net and according to the former the quilt story is going to be incorporated into a planned monument to Frederick Douglass to be placed in Washington, D.C.  That is very disappointing.

At one point Luker asks why we need to believe this nonsense even after it is shown that the story lacks credibility.  Fellow Cliopatria blogger Oscar Chamberlain offers his own response to this question.  I was particularly intrigued by one of his suggestions:

7. Unlike some fields, physics, for example, the lines between the professional
and the non-professional historians and the history they produce is extremely
blurry. There are fine—or at least accurate—people who do history outside of the
profession as well as some jokers. And there are many people on both sides of
the line who do good work much of the time but not all the time. And then there
is the well-produced muck. We often complain about this blurring when we discuss
what students learn (the student says,“I love the History Channel"), but we
rarely talk about what we learn, not always consciously, from popular sources
that don’t seem like muck.

I think Chamberlain’s point here is particularly appropriate for Civil War studies.  That "blurry" line is both a blessing and a challenge.

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2 comments… add one

  • Kristen Jan 6, 2007

    I’ve been following the discussion of this on the H-Slavery site as well. Strangely enough, I caught an episode of the TV show “Num3ers,” last night and Judd Hirsch’s character mentioned how these quilts were used in the UGRR. For the mainstream public (or at least Hollywood) the authenticity of these quilts remains unchallenged. I wonder where the script writers heard about this?

  • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2007

    Hey Kristen, — Thanks for the tip. Isn’t that interesting how some of this actually makes it into popular culture.

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