Midtown Raleigh News

February 23, 2014

Wiggins: Quilted codes signal black history

There’s some debate over whether Underground Railroad quilt codes are a matter of fact or fiction, born out of actual history, or of storied books of written from someone’s imagination.

I think I can imagine it: Boom-boom-boom-boom. My heart races with the promise of freedom, yet it’s stilled by the fear of capture; perhaps even an eminent, grisly death lurks. I must travel lightly in the cover of darkness to escape the heavy burden of slavery. I must be strong and smart, cautious and brave, wary and trusting.

I think I can imagine, too, the comfort of our leaders whose determination to be free erases the fear for all of us on the journey. And I think I can imagine feeling most safe in the secret communication of signs and symbols buried in quilts hung in plain view to help us navigate the Underground Railroad to freedom.

But because none of us in modern-day America can neither really fathom such an experience, there’s some debate over whether Underground Railroad quilt codes are a matter of fact or fiction, born out of actual history, or of storied books of written from someone’s imagination.

Whatever we believe, Underground Railroad quilt codes have sewn a place in the fabric of history.

Claudia Cooke Powell is a member of Ebony Raleigh Area Group Stitchers, or ERAGS, about 15-20 African-American women who for the past two years have shared their own Underground Railroad quilt and symbolic blocks at the N.C. Museum of History’s annual African-American Cultural Celebration.

“We thought it befitting, a worthwhile project to honor our history by doing the kinds of quilts that assisted slaves in their escapes to freedom,” said Tillie Newsome, who helped co-found ERAGS five years ago. “We’ve had significant interchange with all ethnicities and ages regarding the significance of those blocks.

“ERAGS is becoming more established,” Newsome said. “It’s a wonderful education for many people in Wake County.”

In addition to the sailboat block Cooke Powell created with ERAGS, she also made one in honor of her mother who died about two years ago. It has lots of green, her mother’s favorite color, and inspirational sayings.

“I’ve heard people talk about their grandparents making quilts and how much they mean to them now,” she said. “No one in my family ever did, so I’m thinking of starting a family tradition to pass on to my granddaughters.”

Newsome, who made quilts for her sons when they were born, is already carrying on family tradition.

“We would come home from school, run through the front door and into my mother’s bedroom, where she would be sitting working at her quilting frame,” Newsome said, adding she’d “stop to do a few stitches” before dashing away for snack or play.

It was coup to find out, too, that quilting no longer refers only to something big enough to cover bed and body. It could be a postcard, a placemat or hot-pad your kitchen. It can have language written on it, or appliqués, or it could be hung on a wall.

Now that I can imagine doing myself.

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