The Underground Railroad Quilt Code - Truth or Myth?

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Date: February 22, 2011
Contact: Martha Wiley, (606) 248-2817, ext. 1051

The Underground Railroad (UGRR) has captured the imagination of the country, and stories of its use have been published and repeated in countless books and songs over the years.  One associated story that has received much attention over the past decade has been the tale of the UGRR "quilt code," a means by which escaping slaves could "read" quilts hung outside houses to find their way north to freedom.

This code was clearly described in the book Hidden in Plain View published in 1999 by Jacqueline Tobin and Dr. Raymond Dobard. In it, Tobin describes her encounters with Ozella Williams, an elderly African-American vendor in a Charleston market who approached Tobin with stories of the quilt code, supposedly handed down over generations to her by her family.

Since the book's publication, the "quilt code" has become legend and is surrounded by controversy, with many scholars disputing its existence and the lack of evidence to support Williams' story.

Was the quilt code an actual "map" to freedom as some claim, or simply a charming story created to sell more quilts?

Join us at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park for a program by Dr. Alicestyne Turley of the Pan African Studies Department at the University of Louisville that will examine the quilt code and the controversies surrounding it, and make up your mind for yourself.

The program, co-sponsored by the Friends of Cumberland Gap, begins at 1 pm on Saturday, February 26th at the park visitor center and is free and open to the public. For additional information on park programs, please call the park visitor center at (606) 248-2817, extension 1075 or access

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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