Presentation looks at secret messages of Civil War-era quilts

The secret messages of Civil War-era quilts

 
By Joan G. Broz
Daily Herald correspondent
Posted2/2/2019 6:00 AM
hello
  • Quilt presenter Connie Martin with a quilt sampler designed by her mother, Dr. Clarice Boswell.

    Quilt presenter Connie Martin with a quilt sampler designed by her mother, Dr. Clarice Boswell. Courtesy Joan G. Broz

  • Quilt containing samples of different quilt codes: bow ties in top the left corner; flying geese in the top center, britches in blue on the left, and rose wreath on the top right.

    Quilt containing samples of different quilt codes: bow ties in top the left corner; flying geese in the top center, britches in blue on the left, and rose wreath on the top right. Courtesy Joan G. Broz

  • Quilt sampler of a collection of quilt codes designed and quilted by Dr. Clarice Boswell that was completed on a white background using forest green and rich maroon, accented with pinks, golds and patterns.

    Quilt sampler of a collection of quilt codes designed and quilted by Dr. Clarice Boswell that was completed on a white background using forest green and rich maroon, accented with pinks, golds and patterns. Courtesy Joan G. Broz

The story of quilting in America is as diverse as the patterns, fabrics and individuals who create the art.

Besides providing warmth, quilts can tell a story, display creativity and uncover history.

In a multimedia presentation, quilt specialist Connie Martin will come to the Lisle Public Library, 777 Front St., at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 to showcase her family's historic quilts.

A classroom teacher for 32 years, Martin trained under the guidance of her mother, a talented quilter and retired educator, Dr. Clarice Boswell, to share with audiences the hidden codes and secret messages within their family's 18 handcrafted quilts.

The stories are all tied to the family's oral testimony that predates the Civil War.

Both mother and daughter use quilt replicas, meticulously made over the years by Boswell for the presentation. Through research, codes and symbols were found that helped slaves secretly navigate the Underground Railroad system to reach freedom. Special hidden stitching techniques also communicated details.

"The unique stories tell about the secret codes and hidden messages inside the patterns of the pre-Civil War quilts that aided abolitionists to guide slaves to freedom in the North through several historical safe routes and Safe Houses on the Underground Railroad," Martin said.

In addition to the quilts, a family Bible makes the presentation unique.

"Our Bible, copyrighted 1898, had documents, photos and information in it that dated back to 1850," Martin said. "It was found by my great aunt in Kentucky and passed on to Lizzie (Martin's great grandmother)."

Leah, a purchased slave, passed on secrets of the patterns to Delcy, who was Lizzie's mother. The line of succession then goes to Martin's grandfather Frank, and on to her mother, Clarice. The secret quilt code was passed from one generation to the next.

"Each decorative pattern that I show the audience, I have the original," said Martin. "They date back to Pearly in Leesburg, Kentucky, 1850."

The code was a way to warn a person or give directions without others knowing what was happening.

Some of the designs are universal, but the codes themselves were only known on an as-needed basis. For instance, the "Wagon Wheel" quilt design meant that the blacksmith would take one or more slaves off the plantation in a hidden, secret compartment on the hay wagon.

The quilt square "Bow Ties" and "Britches" meant that the safe house would have a change of clothing for the escaping slave or for the children. "Northern Star," which was also called "Evening Star," pointed the direction to the North for travel.

The design of a "Ring of Roses" or "Rose Wreath" was not a code, but rather was given to the traveler as a gift upon arriving in Canada and obtaining freedom.

Other codes included the design "Bear's Claw" that meant you would find water nearby, because bears often are near water. The design "Log Cabin" with a black center square meant it was safe to come into the designated Safe House. A red middle square, indicated possible trouble, and you should not stop at the house. A yellow center square meant to proceed with caution.

A "Boat" pattern meant you were going to go by boat as a way to travel to the next Safe House in the Underground Railroad system.

"The quilt codes were only privy to certain plantations and certain slaves," said Martin. "Not everyone was privy to this information. My family was one of those chosen and it's documented in our Bible."

Quilt research relies on oral anecdotes and written memory that Martin and her mother developed into their unique presentation.

"Sometimes a quilt is just a quilt," Martin said. "Other times, it is a secret message offering a safe route to freedom."

To register for the program, call the library at (630) 971-1675. The program is presented in partnership with the Lisle Heritage Society.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.