A Student of History

February 3, 2007

Quilt Controversy

Filed under: The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 12:14 am

“A granite quilt, a small plaque and one woman’s story have suddenly come under fire in New York City, thanks in part to Yale Civil War historian David Blight,” according to a story yesterday in the Yale Daily News by Daniel Bartholomew.   This is more on the debate among historians and the public (some on both sides that is to say) about the possible meaning of slave quilts and thier use as guides for the Underground Railroad. 

David W. BlightThe story goes on:

After hearing of the city of New York’s plans to construct the $15 million Frederick Douglass Circle in the northwest corner of Central Park, Blight voiced concerns about the historical accuracy and relevance of the memorial’s centerpiece, a granite replica of a quilt that a nearby plaque says was used as a means of covert communication for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad.  “I simply object to associating Frederick Douglass in a major public memorial with such a legend,” Blight wrote in an e-mail. “Frederick Douglass never saw, nor did he even hear of, a quilt used to signal a runaway slave like himself, on his or her desperate journey to freedom.”

The quilt’s meteoric rise to fame began when “Hidden in Plain View,” a book describing the role quilts may have played as a means of communication for escaping slaves, was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” a year before the book’s 1999 release. The authors, Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, interviewed a schoolteacher, Ozella McDaniel Williams, who described a code her family sewed into textiles to instruct escaping slaves. Algernon Miller, who designed the memorial, told the New York Times that Williams’s story directly inspired his design.

The rest of this story is here.



  1. For heaven’s sake! We must come to our senses and prevent a $15 million dollar memorial to be built in our largest, most cosmopolitan city that completely misrepresents history — and African-American history in particular.

    Every effort must be made by the history and humanities community to squash this “quilt myth” once a for all. It’s just legend, and nothing more!

    Comment by Mark Texel — February 8, 2007 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  2. How can you be so sure that it is a myth? There is no proof that it is true, and there is no proof that it is not true.

    Comment by Erin — February 22, 2007 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  3. Erin–yours is an argument based on a logical fallacy, in that one is not obligated here to go out an prove that an unsubstantiated claim is untrue; the burden of proof lies with those who claim the quilts wereused as guides for the Underground Railroad. Blight’s opinion carries great weight given his scholarship, so I hope you have read his comments and the link to them as well. JM

    Comment by John Maass — February 22, 2007 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

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