Douglass Memorial Sparks Debate on Art vs. History Did slaves use secretly coded quilt patterns to help plan their escapes on the Underground Railroad? Many historians have their doubts. The design for a new Frederick Douglass memorial sparks a debate pitting oral tradition against documented historical fact.
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Douglass Memorial Sparks Debate on Art vs. History

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Douglass Memorial Sparks Debate on Art vs. History

Douglass Memorial Sparks Debate on Art vs. History

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In New York City, at the northwest corner of Central Park, is Frederick Douglass Circle, an eyesore and a dangerous intersection. But it's about to be transformed in a tribute to the brilliant writer, orator and political thinker who escaped from slavery. The Frederick Douglass memorial is embroiled in a controversy that pits artistic truth and oral traditions against documented historical fact.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: The competition to design the Frederick Douglass memorial was won by Gabriel Koren and Algernon Miller in 2003. Koren's eight-foot bronze statue of Douglass will stand in a plaza of quilt patterns in granite designed by Miller.

Algernon Miller found himself inspired by the book "Hidden in Plain View," by Jacqueline Tobin, a journalist and teacher, and Raymond Dobard, an expert on quilts.

Since quilts have long been a part of African-American art, Miller found them appropriate for the Frederick Douglass memorial.

Mr. ALGERNON MILLER (Artist): In reading the story, I had discovered that there were quilts in Frederick Douglass' house. There was the star quilt, and, you know, his newspaper was called the North Star. And I said, well that's it.

ADLER: But the book, based on an oral family story, contends that quilts were used as secret codes for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Many historians say there is no basis for this claim.

Jacqueline Tobin says the story began…

Ms. JACQUELINE TOBIN (Author, "Hidden in Plain View"): When I met an elderly African-American quilter in the Charleston marketplace.

ADLER: Tobin tells the story that has mythic qualities. The woman, Ozella McDaniel Williams sold her a quilt in South Carolina, and told her that quilts were used to communicate on the Underground Railroad but would tell her no more. She said, you'll get it when you're ready.

That began a three-year journey for Tobin to learn about quilts on the Underground Railroad. When she returned to the marketplace to meet Williams, the woman told her, write this down.

Ms. TOBIN: Then, she proceeded to tell me this very interesting, what we now call Underground Railroad quilt code.

ADLER: Williams said some of the quilt patterns like wagon wheels, flying geese and log cabin were mnemonic devices giving direction and advice that slaves could memorize before their escape.

Much of the book looks at connections between African and American quilting patterns. The authors admit there is huge disagreement among quilters about the origins of many patterns - it is one woman's story, and Williams is now dead -and most historians say there is no evidence of secret codes. But remember, Tobin says, the slaves from Africa brought their own cultural heritage with them, and were able…

Ms. TOBIN: To use the same techniques of secrecy and encoded objects to then use that same knowledge as a form of a resistance and escape here in the Americas.

Mr. MILLER: And here we have the wagon wheel fence, and we have our fiber-optically lighted 60-foot fountain and…

ADLER: Algernon Miller shows me his model for the memorial. No one had trouble with the design, but historians railed at interpretative panels that would link the quilt codes with the Underground Railroad and with Frederick Douglass. David Blight is a professor of American history at Yale. He says the Underground Railroad is one of the deepest American historical myths.

Professor DAVID BLIGHT (History, Yale University): It's a story of escape. It's a story from slavery to freedom. The problem has always been, how do we carve through the enormous folklore and mythology about this story to get to the real stories of real fugitive slaves, of real escape routes, of real sites that we know?

ADLER: Blight, who has written books on the Underground Railroad and Frederick Douglass, believes that artists should have artistic freedom, that children can appreciate the story through a mythic window. But he says there is no record in the oral history of former slaves recorded during the Great Depression that mentions quilt codes. As for Douglass, he was literate, forged his own escape papers, dressed in sailor's clothing, and escaped by land and by sea. A genius of a writer, a major political thinker, says Blight.

Prof. BLIGHT: Douglass was arguably America's most ferocious political critic of the middle of the 19th century, and to represent him through this apocryphal tale of quilt codes is a disservice.

ADLER: But when the controversy hit the pages of the New York Times, Algernon Miller found himself almost amused. He started wondering about all the statues surrounding Central Park. Take Columbus, built at a time when Americans didn't honor the fact that this land had long been occupied. And a mile to the north, Teddy Roosevelt, high astride a horse in front of the American Museum of Natural History, flanked by, and at a lower level, a black man and a native American.

Mr. MILLER: This is a - pretty much a racist kind of a image, the sort of great white father, and this kind of manifest destiny position that still prevails.

ADLER: Miller argues most of the statues flanking the park come more out of myth than documented fact. Kate Levin is the New York City commissioner of cultural affairs. She says some of the wording on the interpretive panels will change, so that nothing will be claimed about quilt codes or their relationship to Frederick Douglass. But in the end, art is not the same thing as history. Art works with imagery and metaphor.

Ms. KATE LEVIN (Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, New York City): Public art is a process that engages many voices. We're always called upon to strike a balance between realizing an individual artist's vision and responding to the needs of the community and the public at large. We think the way this piece is going to work with the quilting patterns, which are extremely beautiful and dynamic and work well in the streetscape situation, and the standing figure of Frederick Douglass, it will be a wonderful public space and very affecting.

ADLER: An ugly intersection will be transformed. A great man will be honored. Both history and art will get their due.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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