How the Underground Railroad Inspired a Throughline for My Dystopian Sci-FI Story
Two years ago, I ventured into the world of freelance content writing fulltime. I uprooted my life in Seattle and moved to a beautiful place on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington, where I could live frugally, make art, and write.
A steady income as a content writer gives me the time and opportunity to work on my passion projects. Although content writing isn't the same as writing a novel or screenplay, there's some creativity involved and lots of time to daydream.
Case and point:
I happen to discover this bit of hidden history while researching a riveting article about the difference between a duvet, comforter, blanket, quilt, and coverlet.
Surprisingly, they are all vastly different, but that's another story.
Sad to say, until my content assignment, I had never heard the so-called rumor of how folks worked together with The Underground Railroad to help slaves on their way to emancipation.
How? With quilts of all things.
It's important to understand the motivation behind the encoded quilts, to have a clear concept of why and how the slaves and abolitionists would use them on the road to freedom.
The Underground Railroad
From 1810 to around 1860, roughly 100,000 slaves found an escape to freedom using The Underground Railroad network. By the mid-1850s, anyone who helped slaves could get a $1000 fine and might even land in prison, if they got caught.
Not only was helping a runaway slave illegal but assisting slave catchers was also a requirement.
Now, The Underground Railroad wasn't underground. And, in fact, it wasn't a railroad either. The network got its name because the participant's activities needed to be covert—underground, out of sight. Additionally, they used railroad terminology as a secret code.
Underground Railroad code ran throughout songs sung by slaves as one of many communication devices to which their masters were unaware.
The Code words were necessary because anyone who wasn't an "agent" wouldn't get any information from the communications should they somehow intercept the exchange.
Moses to Her People
Harriet Tubman (AKA Moses) was an instrumental figure in The Underground Railroad. As one of their most successful "conductors," she helped some 300 slaves escape after she found her way to freedom, with help from the network.
You can read up on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, in The Road to Freedom. And there's an excellent documentary entitled, They Called Her Moses (adapted from Tubman's Biography). The documentary features some of the secretly coded African-American songs that the slaves used to pass on information.
Although the film doesn't speak specifically about the quilts, many believe that the Freedom Quilts were but one of the ways slaves communicated their plans for escape.
Craftiness and Craftsmanship
I love the idea of encoded quilts, regardless of whether historians dispute the stories. What's more—I'm not convinced that investing in finding out that truth is essential to all historians.
It depends on who's logging history.
At any rate, the tale of those life-saving quilts is an oral legend passed down in families whose ancestors escaped slavery via The Underground Railroad.
I'm inclined to believe there is truth to the legend.
The story goes:
When there was word that a conductor would be coming through, the people in the know would hang a quilt over their fence or door. Different patterns in the quilt would let the network in on the plan.
The Monkey Ranch pattern (bottom row, second pattern) sent a message to get your belongings together—we'll be leaving soon.
Next would come the pattern referred to as the Drunkard's Path (1st row, number three) indicating the route they would take. The drunkard's path was never a straight line. For one, taking a winding route helped lose anyone who might be tracking them.
There was also a belief among the slaves that evil spirits traveled in a straight line.
The Bear Paw (second row, left) states, we'll follow bear tracks, eat berries and honey, and take shelter in a bear's den. Slave owners, or bears, that's one hell of a choice.
Whether they were fearless or driven by fear, they endured hardships that we can't imagine.
The Flying Geese (bottom right) indicated the direction they needed to travel—usually north, but sometimes they would head west. What time they were heading out also made an impact, hence the North Star pattern (upper left), for traveling at night.
Safehouses Used the Quilts Too
Of course, the railroad also needed a way to indicate places where it was safe for the slaves to hide. They hung the Log Cabin design on the fence at a safe house. The people at the safe house were white or black abolitionists, who would provide a safe haven for the slaves during the day so that the weary travelers could eat and rest.
The small square in the center of the Log Cabin quilt was of utmost importance. If it was red or yellow, it was safe to come in; however, if the square was black, navy blue, or brown, that meant the slave catchers were out, and so the group should keep going.
The history of The Underground Railroad is one of resilience and collaboration. It proves that we can work together for real freedom that includes all of humanity. What's more—there are more inspiring stories out there waiting for discovery if we only take the time to look.
For now, I found this information regarding the coded Freedom Quilts and there are also patterns in case you want to give quilting a try.
Read More About Coded Quilts
I also discovered the only book to date written on the subject of Freedom Quilts. Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard's Hidden in Plain View (1999) traces the origin of the Charleston South Carolina Code from the low-country island Gullah peoples to free blacks living in the cities of the North.
The authors met with African American quilter, Ozella Williams, in South Carolina. She wanted to get the stories down on paper, as she described how slaves made coded quilts to help navigate their escape via The Underground Railroad.
My Dystopian Sci-FI Story—The Shift
In my sci-fi series, The Shift, I introduce this oral history through the eyes of an African-American woman whose ancestors escaped slavery via The Underground Railroad. Later, that history is repeated, as my protagonist and his brother devise a plan to use encoded quilts (in the year 2045) to help people escape from the artificial intelligence that enslaves them in locked-down cities throughout America.