Deciphering Underground Railroad Quilts: A Lesson Plan

Deciphering Underground Railroad Quilts: A Lesson Plan
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Slavery and Communication

Read the information below, then perform the included activity with your students to increase understanding of the underground railroad.

Before we can explore exact methods of the underground railroad, we must first understand the basic methods of communication among slaves. It was usually prohibited for slaves to learn to read and write. Though some did, it was fairly uncommon for slaves to develop these skills for many reasons. It was not encouraged and time was limited because most of the slaves' time was spent working for their owners. The slaves were educated in their own way as they worked. The songs that were sung spoke of religion and history. The stories that were told taught morality and love of fellow man even as they spoke of the injustices of life.

Of course, designs and pictures were also part of the story telling. As much as writers yearn to get their stories out there, so do those who cannot read and write. Those people contented themselves with oral and craft methods of expressing themselves. One craft was that of quilting.

Just as today’s children know all the slang for video games, so the slave children knew all the names of quilt patterns. Once heard, these names could tell a story or communicate a vital piece of information simply by looking at the patterns or stitches. So it was with the underground railroad.

Using the Underground Railroad Quilts

Imagine that you are a runaway slave. How would you know if it was safe to walk up to a house and ask for help? If those that lived in the house didn’t want to help you, they would surely return you to your owner for your punishment. What a risk to take! For this very reason, symbols were developed along the route of the underground railroad. One of the symbols was the use of quilts.

Quilts were often hung over fence rails and porches to air out. The slaves did the household cores and the owners of the house would pay no attention to a quilt on display. Different patterns on the quilts could give messages to slaves on the run. For instance, the pattern of “log cabin” meant that the house was a safe house. The pattern of “drunkard’s path” meant that a runaway slave should take an indirect route as word had reached the house that the slave was being pursued.

Did this mean that a quilt had to be made special for every signal? Indeed not! Various symbols could be placed on one quilt. The quilt would be hung so that only certain symbols would be shown. In this way, multiple symbols could be displayed at once. For instance, a certain combination of symbols such as “drunkard’s path” and “sailboat” could mean to take an indirect path to a waiting boat that would take the slave another step closer to freedom.

Making a Message

Students can use this information to try to make their own quilt message. To do this, follow the steps below.

  • Review the quilt codes.
  • Separate children into groups of four.
  • Ask two of the group members to pretend to be runaway slaves. Ask 2 of the group members to be helpers on the underground railroad.
  • Draw or construct a quilt, then hang it up in such a manner as to display a clear message.
  • Ask students to try to read the message. Can the “runaway slaves” decipher the code?

While you can pretend to be in the times of runaway slaves and can even pretend to be one yourself, there was a time when this was a life or death situation. As you put yourself in the shoes of the runaway slaves and the underground railroad members, discuss what fears each party would face.What would happen to the slaves if caught? What would happen to those helping runaway slaves? If the runaways made it to freedom, what new fears would they have to face?


National Geographic, The Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom.