The enduring story for Underground Railroad Quilts Quilters have been copying patterns believed to have been used as signals for the Underground Railroad even though historians say they can't find any evidence they were used that way.

The enduring story for Underground Railroad Quilts

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Underground Railroad quilts are a major trend in the quilting world. These are handmade quilts made up of varying squares, each with different symbols, supposedly representing instructions for the journey north. But the quilts may be a modern invention. Sea Stachura unravels the tale, beginning with a visit to QuiltCon, an annual quilting convention.

SEA STACHURA, BYLINE: QuiltCon drew about 12,000 quilters to Raleigh, N.C. this year. People perused art quilts and historic quilts. At one booth, the African American Quilt Circle of Durham is showing Underground Railroad quilts. Quilt circle president Melanie Dantzler shows me one by Cynthia Kelly.

MELANIE DANTZLER: A lot of these blocks were from the Underground Railroad quilt, and she just put her own colors and her own spin on the blocks that are already out there, that have been out there for centuries.

STACHURA: The Underground Railroad quilt is a set of quilt blocks that could have helped enslaved people escape during slavery.

DANTZLER: I know this one is Jacob's ladder right here. This is flying geese right here.

STACHURA: The idea took off 25 years ago with the book "Hidden In Plain View." Sandra Daniel is an African American quilter and the owner of Country Barn Quilt Company in Augusta, Ga. She says the book, written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, lays out how each quilt block serves as a code.

DANTZLER: And those blocks actually gave the slaves direction on how and when to leave and which route to take. And it started out with the monkey wrench.

STACHURA: According to the book, that symbol stands for a freed African American blacksmith who could travel between plantations.

DANTZLER: He kind of knows the road and knows when to travel. And then the next block you look at is the actual wagon wheel.

STACHURA: The idea is that a coded quilt was hung outside to show the way to freedom. Author Jacqueline Tobin says she heard these stories from a Black South Carolina woman, and those tales have been taken up as fact. Museum and library displays and school curriculums have been built around this idea. But there is a tear in the narrative.

TRACY VAUGHN-MANLEY: There is no evidence of it at all.

STACHURA: That's Tracy Vaughn-Manley, a Black Studies professor at Northwestern University. She studies Black quilting, and she says enslaved people definitely made utilitarian quilts. But...

VAUGHN-MANLEY: Based on the research of highly regarded slave historians, there has been no evidence, nothing that would signify that quilts were used as codes.

STACHURA: In fact, the history of quilts and slavery conditions contradict this code story, and that's according to quilt historian Laurel Hinton (ph). But she's also a folklorist. As a narrative, she recognizes the cultural significance of the codes.

LAUREL HORTON: It's appealing to Black people because it gives them the idea of agency, that your ancestors had some way of dealing with their situation.

STACHURA: And she says it's appealing to white people.

HORTON: If Black people could find ways to escape out from under the noses of their enslavers, then it couldn't have been all that bad.

STACHURA: Hinton says folk narratives like this are tools for meaning. It certainly creates meaning for quilt store owner Sandra Daniel.

SANDRA DANIEL: We all have something we try to hold on to. A lot of history of African Americans has been erased. What else can you tell me? You can't tell me my history because it was taken from me.

STACHURA: There's evidence that some of the code blocks appeared in quilts in the 1850s, and Daniel and other quilters recognize that the story of coded quilts may not entirely match reality.

For NPR News, I'm Sea Stachura in Augusta, Ga.

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