Underground Railroad

Oberlin, Ohio has a wonderful museum highlighting the Underground Railroad. The city was an important stopping point for slaves journeying to freedom. Isn’t it ironic then that two summers ago, my granddaughter, a beautiful then-12-year-old Haitian, while at a summer music camp in Oberlin, experienced racial slurs when the campers attended a concert there?

The voice heard by all must have learned this behavior. So, when does it end?

Each block of this quilt, and some of the actual quilting, tells a story from the Underground Railroad.


Quilts were hung out on bushes and fences and gave the slaves signals for travelling to Freedom. Since most couldn’t read, they learned what each symbol meant and followed them northward.

Large Blocks

Bottom left: Monkey wrench: Collect what you need to travel. You’ll be leaving soon.

Bottom middle: Carpenter’s wheel: Collect your tools and what you need to travel.

Bottom right: Tumbling blocks: Depending on number of blocks and knots in blocks, this told the slaves when they will travel.

Row 2 left (second row from bottom): Drunkard’s path: “When you go through the woods, don’t go in a straight path or the hunting dogs will find you.”

Row 2 middle: Flying Geese: (Which one of these is not like the others) “Look for the odd geese and the direction to which they point”

Row 2 right: Bear paws: “Follow the bear prints in the woods. The bears know where there is water”.

Row 3 left (third row from bottom): Bowties: “Stay put. Someone will bring you good clothes. Yours are shabby and you stick out in the crowd”.

Row 3 middle left: North Star: “Look for the Big Dipper and follow the North Star which is at the tip of the spoon. It will point you in the right direction – north”.

Row 3 middle right: Basket: “Stay put. Someone will bring you food”.

Row 3 right: Crossroads:” Get ready. You’re coming to Cleveland or Detroit – cities which have people to help you”.

At this point, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed which demanded that any slave, travelling north to freedom, could be brought back to their former slave owners in the south. Any Federal Marshall was required to assist them back to their owners under penalty of law. In order for the slaves to be truly free, they had to continue their travels to Canada.

River: This was one of the Great Lakes or St. Lawrence Seaway: the last leg to Freedom.

Boats: If there was a log cabin pattern drawn in the sand by the river, a boat captain knew that a slave was hiding close by and needed passage to Canada.

3 squares: Once in Canada, if a slave would clear 3 acres of land, he was allowed to keep one acre. These squares represent the clearing, planting, and finally, blooming ……..and FREEDOM

Little Blocks

Log Cabins: Black center: “Light is out, don’t come in.” Yellow center: “Light’s on, Welcome” (Red center is recorded to either mean “Danger, Stay away” or just the hearth of the home) Shoe Fly: This was the nickname given to those who helped the slaves to freedom. Extra Flying Geese: “All pointing up or North”

Underground Railroad - Seaway

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