“We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out from a gloomy past, till now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”
As the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also called the “Negro National Anthem,” faded from the air inside the Greater New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Waxahachie, attention shifted to the dozen of black women, dressed in historical costumes, seated in the choir pews behind a handmade quilt.
As a celebration of faith and Black History Month, the members of the Pleasant Hill Quilting Group from Linden, Texas, presented the stories and meanings behind different quilting patterns that were used to guide runaway slaves north along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War on Saturday. The quilts and their meanings were passed down through family history, the women said, and tell many stories of courage and commitment, said Flo Stevenson, a founding member of the quilters group.
Quilts were often the only sign runaways could expect to see, using colors and patterns to communicate to the illiterate blacks the best way to continue. It was common for rich and poor houses to have many quilts that had to be laid out on the close line, over the fence or out a window to air, making quilts a perfect way to hide messages in plain sight, a quilting club member said.
Jacob’s Ladder, a pattern using diagonal rows of blocks to represent ladders extending up and down, was used as a compass, indicating the direction on the road runaways should continue, another woman told the audience. The quilter would use a darker color material in one of the diagonals and a much lighter material on the other to point in the proper direction.
A Monkey Wrench pattern would alert slaves an Underground Railroad conductor would be in the area soon while the Shoofly pattern told the runaways to scatter and meet at a pre-designated point like a cemetery where they could hide undetected until it was time to move again. Quilts with Log Cabin patterns and red, black or yellow centers were used to indicate safe houses along the route.
Other patterns, like the bow tie, indicated the slaves would soon meet someone who would help them get new clothes to blend into their new lives.
“As slaves stowed away, their clothing would become tattered and torn,” another woman said, but as they entered areas with more free blacks, it became safer to walk through town rather than sneak around it. “On the final leg of their journey, slaves could walk through town undetected but would need help to have the proper clothing.”
Other patterns would tell runaways to follow the bear or geese trails over the mountains to find the best water and safest routes, as well as where to dodge on and off the trail to lose any slave catcher who might be tracking them.
One of the most powerful patterns was the Star pattern, reminding the runaways that by heading north according to the Northern Star, they would reach Canada, the land under the stars, and the freedom they were searching for, one of the woman said.
“The church was the post office and the black sailors were the mail carriers,” said one of the women, explaining the social gatherings at church were a perfect place to gather news from the outer reaches of congregations.
Black sailers would carry news back south from escaped slaves who had made it to freedom and pass on information about the safest routes, she continued.
Songs also played a vital role in communicating the best times to run or to encourage runaways who might have been nearby to keep believing, the woman said. The spiritual songs about the deliverance from the bondage of sin by crossing the river and following the Savior home to glory took on new meanings as slaves forded rivers to throw off a tracking dog’s sent and put their trust in conductors to guide them north.
But of all the things the messages left in quilts and songs gave slaves and the assistance from blacks and whites along the way, the most important part of a runaway’s escape was they had to bring themselves, a woman reminded the audience.
“The most important thing they needed was their courage. That no matter what happened, they were going to keep going,” she said.
Contact Bethany Kurtz at 469-517-1450 or email email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BethanyKurtzMidloMirror or on Twitter @bethmidlomirror.