In 1999, a book came out titled "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad," written by Jaqueline Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. The authors claimed their work offered the first proof regarding how fugitive Black slaves shared coded messages through different quilted patterns as a means to escape on the underground railroad.
The book was a success – with reviews and interviews appearing in the The New York Times and NPR – catching the world’s attention as a moving tale of resourcefulness, creativity, and craftsmanship. Even before the publication of Tobin and Dobard’s book, there were children’s books such as Deborah Hopkinson’s "Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt," which told the story of an enslaved child who created a quilted map unintelligible to her enslaver.
According to historian Leigh Fellner, the first recorded nod to the rumor originated from a 1987 “feminist” video that briefly mentioned it (“quilts were hung outside underground railroad safe houses”) but did not provide any source or evidence of the claim.
In Fellner’s 137 pages of comprehensive research on the subject, she found that this story has built up perceived credibility over time, but that there is no actual historical record of it ever happening.
“Since April 2004 this article has received over 50,000 unique visits (and nearly three quarters of a million "hits"),” Fellner writes. “No one has ever contacted me with evidence of a "Code". I have also contacted many "Code" proponents myself to ask where their "firsthand evidence" can be located. The only source ever cited is 'Hidden in Plain View.'”
The most significant doubts stem from the fact that most patterns that allegedly had meaning did not emerge until significantly after the Civil War (mostly beginning in the 20th century), and have also been interpreted in vastly different ways by different people.
“Such an extremely myopic view of African-American quilts made many scholars of Black history and quilt history researchers uneasy,” said Cuesta Benberry, a historian who specialized in research on quiltmaking in America, in her book, "Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts."
“Quilt historians realized findings gathered in these early studies of black-made quilts had been extrapolated far beyond what the evidence would legitimately support.”
Fellner points out that those who most staunchly defend the legend of the quilt codes are those who are benefitting monetarily because of it through museum exhibitions, book deals, or selling quilts themselves.
In a 2007 New York Times opinion piece titled “History’s Tangled Threads” by historian Fergus Bordewich, he began by painting a picture of the common modern romanticization of escape from enslavement “as a thrilling tapestry of midnight flights, hairbreadth escapes, mysterious codes and strange hiding places. So it’s not surprising that the intriguing (if only recently invented) tale of escape maps encoded in antebellum quilts … should also seize the popular imagination.”
While some view the issue as being a whitewashed romanticization of history that makes the horrors of slavery more palatable, especially for children’s books, school curricula, and museum exhibits catering to children, others, such as Patricia Turner, author of “Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African-American Quilters” and professor of African American studies at University of California Los Angeles, pointed out to Snopes in 2022 that stories centering on “African Americans using their own resources for emancipation” are often overlooked in favor of stories centering on white saviors.
Until works such as "Hidden in Plain View" were published, proponents of the quilt code claim the stories existed largely in oral history, and this is where it becomes difficult to verify truth, as undeniable physical evidence of this claim does not exist. Given that meaning could be derived from any number of random quilt patterns – “triangles in quilt design signified prayer messages or prayer badge, a way of offering prayer ... the color black indicated that someone might die …” – it is difficult to either definitively confirm or deny the existence of this ever happening.
"What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of Black women made quilts and passed on their oral history,” said Anna Lopez, former education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum in a 2007 Time Magazine article. “No one wrote down their history, so who knows?"