Quilted Code to Freedom
Former Kentuckian Clarice Boswell shares her story of her grandmother and secret quilt codes that led slaves to freedom
When thunderstorms raged outside her family’s Nicholasville farm, as a little girl Clarice Boswell would seek refuge in her grandma’s bed, safe and warm under one of the family’s heirloom quilts.
Keeping them company on the sleepless nights were photographs on the walls of Boswell’s ancestors. But the stern expressions of the people in the photographs often scared her even more, and she sometimes hid under the covers to keep from looking at them, Boswell recalls.
One time she asked her grandmother why the people in the photos looked so angry. Her grandmother’s response: as slaves, they didn’t have much to smile about.
And then the stories would begin. Stories of slavery and of survival. Of quilts and secret codes within them. But most of all, of freedom sought and freedom found.
Sharing Lizzie’s Story
Today, when Clarice Boswell—now 66 and a longtime resident of the Joliet, Illinois, area with her husband of 47 years, Hank—tells people that she is a fifth-generation member of a slave family, her message is not one of anger, but of pride.
“I tell people that I cannot afford to be angry. Because anger will destroy me,” Boswell says. “If I were destroyed, who would live to tell the story of Lizzie and the struggle of my family?”
It’s a story that Boswell has lovingly documented in her book, Lizzie’s Story: A Slave Family’s Journey to Freedom, a fictional account based on actual events, published in 2002.
The book’s namesake, Boswell’s paternal grandmother, Lizzie Brent Sheff Davis Cannon (1870-1965), was born in Leesburg, Kentucky, on the same plantation that had purchased and put her maternal grandparents to work as slaves after their transportation from Africa in 1850.
As an adult, Lizzie was able to break free from the legacy of slavery and cruelty her family had endured in Leesburg. She made a home with her second husband, Simon Cannon, on a farm in Nicholasville, where Boswell grew up, and where her brother, Frank Cannon Jr., lives today.
Boswell’s research into her family history began in earnest after receiving her Ed.D. in 1991. After documenting the struggle and survival of historically black colleges and universities in her doctoral dissertation, she decided her own family’s struggles deserved to be told as well.
The result was Lizzie's Story, a celebration of the fact that Lizzie’s family’s spirit and pride survived—even in the face of decades of slavery and segregation—so that, from Lizzie’s grandparents’ generation on to Boswell’s own, they have been able to say, “Despite all of this, I am still standing,” she says.
It’s a message she’s proud to share with her four grown children and eight grandchildren, as well as the larger community.
“As Lizzie’s granddaughter, I share her story by choice so that people will know that the struggle of slavery was devastating, but the survival will be remembered forever,” Boswell says.
The Secret Code
Boswell shared a bedroom with Lizzie, whom she always called “Mama,” at their Nicholasville home until she left for college at Kentucky State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics education in 1959.
Through their close bond, at a young age Boswell learned from Lizzie not only the stories of her own family’s struggle to gain freedom, but also of the means by which generations of slaves sought escape: through the use of the codes hidden in the patterns of quilts just like the ones they snuggled under.
It was a secret that had been passed down to Lizzie from her mother and grandmother before her, and that she passed on to her children and grandchildren. Different quilt patterns had different meanings, each one an important lesson for slaves making the trip north via the Underground Railroad, Boswell says.
For example, the Flying Geese pattern instructed slaves to make the journey north during the spring, as geese do, to ensure that rivers would be thawed and passable. The Bear’s Paw pattern instructed slaves to follow the tracks of bears north to find paths to rivers or streams and means of escape.
The secret meanings of patterns such as these, Boswell explains, were taught only to selected slaves preparing to make the journey north by a griot—a storyteller in the African tradition—usually the blacksmith and the most educated and most trustworthy slave, who used a sampler quilt with all the patterns as a teaching tool.
Plantation owners or other slavery proponents witnessing the meeting would suspect that nothing more was going on than a little quilting.
While some quilt patterns such as the Flying Geese and Bear’s Paw were taught only as memory aids of the steps to take to freedom, others were actually displayed at stops along the Underground Railroad, Boswell says.
Underground safe houses for runaway slaves traveling west sometimes identified themselves by hanging out the Log Cabin quilt with a black center; at stops where slaves could acquire clean clothing to blend in with free blacks, the Bow Tie quilt was displayed; and the Wedding Ring, or “Slave Chain,” quilt was displayed at churches in the north, signifying that slaves could stop there to get their chains removed, explains Boswell, who has been quilting herself since she was 6 years old.
One quilt code, the Ring of Roses—which was given to escaped slaves as a gift once they reached safety in the north, Boswell says—has a special poignancy due to her Kentucky roots.
“Whenever I see them give the roses to the horse who wins the Kentucky Derby,” Boswell says, “I think of the Ring of Roses quilt, which represented a celebration of life.”
While the secret quilt code is touched on in Lizzie's Story, it forms the basis of Boswell’s oral presentation, Pre-Civil War Quilts: Their Hidden Codes to the Freedom of Slaves Through the Underground Railroad, which she’s delivered to hundreds of school, church, and civic groups across the country since 1999.
From Lizzie, Boswell learned the meaning of three quilt codes, and through her own research—based on discussions with others who know about the code and reading of “more than 100 books” on the subject—she has pieced together the meanings of 18 other patterns so far.
Drawing on her skills from a 30-year career as an educator in the Joliet public school system, during her presentation Boswell illustrates her points with glimpses of replica quilt patterns and snippets of Negro spirituals she says also carried hidden messages to freedom.
“I never allow the presentation to be taped because it’s so personal to me,” Boswell says, “so the telling of it is slightly different each time.”
It’s “like having been taken on a journey,” says Marisa FitzGerald, a Jessamine County Extension agent for family and consumer sciences who hosted Boswell’s presentation in Nicholasville last July.
Boswell’s presentation made history “come to life” for Judy Reeder’s Madison Southern High School summer school students, she says.
“She was a great storyteller. Students study the Underground Railroad in school, but her story made it more personal and helped them understand how extensive the Underground Railroad network was,” Reeder says.
Having finished giving her presentation to an elementary school group in Illinois last December, a little boy raised his hand to ask, “Do we still have an Underground Railroad today?” Boswell recalls.
“And I told him it was a wonderful question, because in a sense we do. The Underground Railroad was a giving, caring group of people who helped those who needed it,” Boswell says. “And today we have many organizations—like the Salvation Army and Toys for Tots—who are still there to help people who need help.”
A DIFFERENT VIEW
Clarice Boswell isn’t alone in sharing secrets of the Underground Railroad quilt code. Published in 1999 and based on the code as described by Ozella McDaniel Williams of Charleston, South Carolina, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret History of Quilts and the Underground Railroad—written by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard—is cited by many as the source that, thanks to an appearance on Oprah, brought the code to national attention.
Yet with that national attention has come scrutiny, and because of a lack of documentary evidence to support the idea, many quilt historians and Underground Railroad historians alike have criticized the quilt code story—particularly as it is described in Hidden in Plain View—as mere myth.
You can go online to www.antiquequiltdating.com; www.hartcottagequilts.com/railroad.htm; or www.quiltersmuse.com/symbolism_in_quilts_as_part_of_t.htm for a sampling of the types of criticisms that are currently circulating.
“The network of quilt scholars that I work with agree that we want to see more proof” in order to accept the code story as fact, says Judy Schwender, who is working on her master’s in textile history with an emphasis in quilt studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as well as curator of collections and registrar at the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society in Paducah. (Go online to www.quiltstudy.org for the International Quilt Study Center at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.)
To critics who point to the lack of written documentation for the code, Boswell has an answer: “You don’t write a secret. It was a mental thing.”
And while Schwender agrees that “oral history is very valuable because it provides us with things we can’t find out about otherwise,” she feels that “it also must be supported with other types of persuasive evidence in order to see how it fits into the big picture.”
Whether historical fact or not, the quilt code story is an important one, Schwender says. “We’re still waiting to see more persuasive evidence. But if this does turn out to be an oral history in the line of myth, then it still has a place in our society. Myth tells us who we want ourselves to be, and a society has to have that.”
LEARNING MORE ABOUT LIZZIE'S STORY
Autographed copies of Lizzie’s Story: A Slave Family’s Journey to Freedom are available for $15 plus shipping and tax directly from Clarice Boswell. For ordering information, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can purchase or order an unsigned copy of the book at your local bookstore.
Boswell says the book has been so well-received because “Everyone who has had the tender love of a grandmother in their life has had a Lizzie.”
Boswell is currently at work on her second book, Pearlie: The Secrets of the Slave, which she hopes to finish in the next year.
The next opportunity to see Boswell’s Pre-Civil War Quilts presentation in Kentucky will be on Thursday, May 5, from 7-8 p.m. at the Anderson County Extension Office, 1026 County Park Road, in Lawrenceburg. Admission is free. For more information, call Debra Parrish at (502) 839-7271.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: QUILT PATTERNS AND THEIR SECRET MEANINGS
To view some of the quilt patterns and their secret meanings, click here: quilt patterns