NC scholar says quilt designs pointed slaves to freedom

tgrubb@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2014 

— To a runaway slave, the sight of a North Star quilt hanging from the wash line or a home’s window was a sign of freedom. The Drunkard Path warned them to run and hide.

Because most slaves couldn’t read, their supporters – some known as abolitionists – came up with a “road map” of patterns they could rely on while traveling the Underground Railroad, said Meltonia Young, an artist and Road Scholar with the N.C. Humanities Council.

Young, who lives in Winston-Salem, brought her research about the role quilts played in the Underground Railroad to Durham for a talk Saturday at the East Regional Library.

She has a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies and a master’s degree in liberal arts with a concentration in African and African-American history from UNC Greensboro. She has traveled extensively to study slavery and the Underground Railroad for nearly 30 years.

The railroad was a network of people – white, black and Native American – homes and businesses that provided runaway slaves with shelter, supplies and directions. The journey to freedom was arduous and by foot, usually lasting for months. Slaves would head north to Canada; south to Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba and South America; or back to Africa, Young said.

“It was the first multiracial movement in America for racial rights and freedom,” she said.

North Carolina had many stations along the Underground Railroad, Young said. The Quakers, also called “Friends,” largely lived in the Piedmont region and were strong supporters of the movement. Runaway slaves were often called “a friend of a friend” because of that, she said.

Guilford County’s most famous abolitionist, Levi Coffin, is considered the father of the Underground Railroad. He and his wife settled along the route, leading many slaves to freedom. They later moved to Indiana and established a station there, too – the last stop before Canada, Young said.

At the time, Canada gave slaves who made it across the border one acre for every three they cleared, she said. That’s the story behind the Nine-Patch quilting pattern.

Other patterns, such as the Bear Paw and the Basket, pointed slaves to food, water and tools. The Monkey Wrench pattern meant a slave who was a skilled craftsman lived at the house. Because the craftsmen traveled between plantations, they knew how best to navigate the land, she said.

Young said there aren’t many documents to support her findings, making some historians skeptical. There wouldn’t be written documentation about something that was a secret, she said. Most of the history was passed down through families or collected by historical groups.

“It was passed from person to person,” she said. “You can’t have a secret network that tells all the secrets.”

Durham resident Margaret Neely, 84, said she enjoyed hearing about Young’s research. She only wishes more young people were there to hear the stories, she said. Only a few children were among the roughly 50 people at Young’s talk.

Neely, the great-granddaughter of former slaves, had heard from her elders about the patterns. They also shared tales of slaves who escaped to freedom and those forced to return, she said.

“We were lucky in our family to have people live a very long time,” Neely said. “They would gather us around to tell us why people had to hide.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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