Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Code Breaking
January 23, 2007 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Did Anyone Really Follow the Drinking Gourd? Were you taught that slaves in the antebellum South sang this traditional song to convey coded instructions for escaping Northward? Were you taught that quilt block patterns could be read as a map to freedom, or that quilts were hung outside safe houses as signals to escaping slaves?Though these are among the most often taught stories of the operation of the Underground Railroad, current scholarship indicates that these aren't survivals of pre-Civil War African-American folklore, but legends constructed and popularized within the twentieth century, frequently by white writers and performers. In today's New York Times, these legends battle it out with fact in debate over the proposed design of a new Frederick Douglass memorial [PDF].
posted by Miko (42 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very nice post. I was just talking with a friend this weekend who went to the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Museum here in Baltimore, and she was remarking on something somewhat related-the lure of celebrity in history. The museum is really about the very deep and rich history of Blacks in the Baltimore and Chesapeake maritime trades, but because Douglass was a slave in Baltimore, and is such an important figure, he gets highlighted in a way that eclipses a little bit the contributions of Free Blacks in Baltimore. Douglass, whose contributions are correctly remembered and lauded elsewhere, doesn't need to get top billing at museum where his story is ancillary at best.
posted by OmieWise at 1:42 PM on January 23, 2007


I've been busy this week refurbishing an old quilt of my grandmother's. I think I'm going to make patches for it that have secret code directions that tell you which subways to take to get to the Douglass memorial!!

I wonder what folk legends about the present will be accepted as historical fact in a hundred years?
posted by hermitosis at 2:05 PM on January 23, 2007


Isn't jumping the broom at weddings a similarly-manufactured tradition?
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:10 PM on January 23, 2007


What a terrific post! The actual past is such an annoying barrier between ourselves and the past we want to believe in.
posted by LarryC at 2:22 PM on January 23, 2007


Certainly they mythological parts of history don't have to be totally expunged. There's a place for Johnny Appleseed, Uncle Sam, Paul Bunyan and the like -- all at least semi-mythological.

On the Underground Railroad, it seems to me another exaggeration is the attribution of "stop" or safe house status to an awful lot of old houses on crossroads expecially if they have interesting cellars or hiding places. I'm guessing some of those stories are fabricated out of whole cloth, or derive from such things as great-grandmother once letting a travelling black man sleep in the barn. "Stop on the Underground Railroad" gets 53,700 Google hits, but many of them are qualified with "rumored", "supposed", "traditionally considered", "believed to have been", etc.
posted by beagle at 2:27 PM on January 23, 2007


No, jumping the broom is real.

This quilting stuff, on the other hand, is generally considered, by people who know what they're talking about, to be bogus.
posted by MythMaker at 2:34 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Great post—I love debunking with an unholy love.
posted by languagehat at 2:39 PM on January 23, 2007


I swear the code quilts have been mentioned somewhere around here before. I remember spending a couple hours reading about them at one point, and I think Metafilter was my jumping-off point. Anyway, one interesting aspect of the quilt myth is the fact that a nice little industry has sprung up around them; there's a market for books about the quilts, and for "replica" code quilts. There's actually an economic incentive to keep the myth alive.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:40 PM on January 23, 2007


Thanks, MythMaker.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:47 PM on January 23, 2007


Great post. A historian in Ohio named Wilbur Siebert collected oral histories and family stories of the UGRR in the 1890's and published the book The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom which gave rise to much of the mythology. While looking for info on Siebert, I ran across this article [PDF] that mentions Siebert and his research methods. It is also a good supplement to what we're talking about here.

As always, David Blight (quoted in the NYT article) says it best. I can't recommend his book Race and Reunion enough. In that book, wrapping up his discussion of the rise of late 19th century UGRR nostalgia, he writes: "In the nineties, the story of slavery and its destruction had become the subject of nostalgia, of self-congratulatory adventure tales. Masked in this comforting haze was a real history of Underground Railroad heroism, as well as the deteriorating condition of American race relations."
posted by marxchivist at 2:51 PM on January 23, 2007


Thanks, MythMaker.

Maybe mathowie should just make a "flag as eponysterical" command.
posted by roll truck roll at 2:57 PM on January 23, 2007


MythMaker: No, jumping the broom is real.

Because Wikipedia says so? That article is far from convincing.
posted by nomis at 2:58 PM on January 23, 2007


To answer one of those rhetorical questions: not only that, but we did a grade school play centered around the song. I played an underground railroad host and messed up my only line. Everyone laughed, but warmly, so it was OK.
posted by abcde at 3:00 PM on January 23, 2007


no problem, MrMoonPie.

The site I linked to above has a super obsessive-compulsive debunking of the whole quilting thing, if you've got an hour or so to spare.
posted by MythMaker at 3:01 PM on January 23, 2007


Okay, here's a scholarly article about jumping the broom.
posted by MythMaker at 3:03 PM on January 23, 2007


Have you been watching Reading Rainbow, Miko? These were discussed in an episode just the other day.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:07 PM on January 23, 2007


I thought we discussed a similar issue with lawn jockeys and their lanterns, yet I can't find that post either.
posted by caddis at 3:14 PM on January 23, 2007


They tried to establish a Frederick Douglass museum here in Rochester, NY but a number of problems ended the effort (it's temporarily housed at the Museum and Science Center). Douglass is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in a rather plain grave.

Mt. Hope is also the final resting place of Susan B. Anthony, a contemporary of Douglass as well as a friend and fellow abolitionist.
posted by tommasz at 3:15 PM on January 23, 2007


There's a place for Johnny Appleseed, Uncle Sam, Paul Bunyan and the like -- all at least semi-mythological.

Technically, Paul Bunyon started out as sort of the Pilsbury Doughboy for his company. He was a corporate designed mascot. In the sense that we are a country that recognizes the corporation as at least equal to the individual, I would say he is exactly the perfect representation of U.S. culture.

/derail
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:16 PM on January 23, 2007


Great post. I'm an elementary school music teacher, and have used "Follow the Drinking Gourd" in lessons... but something about it always seemed inauthentic.

Real spirituals, however, are pretty subversive. Read through the lyrics of some of these songs, and it's easy to see the references to the plight of slavery and the hope for liberation. The spiritual is an amazing art form.
posted by the_bone at 3:26 PM on January 23, 2007


"I wonder what folk legends about the present will be accepted as historical fact in a hundred years?"

WMDs? "Compassionate Conservatism?" "No Child Left Behind?"
posted by stenseng at 3:53 PM on January 23, 2007


Ooooo, slamming post, Miko! Thanks so much.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:05 PM on January 23, 2007


Next Up: So-called "Moon Landing" and "Holocaust".
posted by The Bellman at 4:19 PM on January 23, 2007


The Bellman writes "Next Up: So-called 'Moon Landing' and 'Holocaust'."

What the fuck is this supposed to mean?
posted by mr_roboto at 4:58 PM on January 23, 2007


here's a scholarly article about jumping the broom.

Thanks MythMaker! Interesting article.
posted by nomis at 5:07 PM on January 23, 2007


There's actually an economic incentive to keep the myth alive.

*Cue tour guide*

"Many believe..."
posted by dreamsign at 5:26 PM on January 23, 2007


This was really good.
posted by blahblahblah at 5:59 PM on January 23, 2007


This quilting stuff, on the other hand, is generally considered, by people who know what they're talking about, to be bogus.

The site I linked to above has a super obsessive-compulsive debunking of the whole quilting thing, if you've got an hour or so to spare.


Those pages are in the link in the main post - just so you know I didn't miss them. This post was actually partially constructed around them.
posted by Miko at 6:01 PM on January 23, 2007


Certainly they mythological parts of history don't have to be totally expunged.

Definitely not (I'm into folklore myself, and love these sorts of tales),. The only problem arises when they are taught as history rather than story. As some of these scholars point out, these are 'feel-good' versions of Underground Railroad history that emphasize the helpfulness of abolitionist whites, and overly simplify and/or deemphasize the incredibly complex and cellular network that slaves and free blacks created to bring others to freedom/

On the Underground Railroad, it seems to me another exaggeration is the attribution of "stop" or safe house status to an awful lot of old houses on crossroads expecially if they have interesting cellars or hiding places.


Absolutely. In the world of public history, this is a consistent problem. People who work in historic organizations are constantly getting calls from folks who just bought a house 'rumored' to have been a stop on the UGRR. Almost all the time, the belief can't be substantiated. Modern people tend not to understand the architectural purposes of all sorts of cellar holes, butteries, pantries, box-rooms, outbuildings, and trap-doors, and embrace the assumption that they must have been slave hiding-places. We all want to be associated with heroes and 'good guys', as well, so we generally want to imagine that there was a profusion of safe houses (and that our house/inn/tavern/church might have been one).

There are a very, very few historic sites which have received certification through the National Park Service and the National Register of Historic Places as former safe houses and UGRR stops, and they're all listed here.
posted by Miko at 6:13 PM on January 23, 2007


What Miko said. My dad was a professional museum director, and had to deal with this all the time. Nearby is a widely-accepted site, the Milton House, although people probably make a bit much of a tunnel between the hotel and an outbuilding (see below). It's on the NPS list.

My dad's bailiwick, though, was the Tallman House, which was built by an abolitionist attorney (and filthy rich land speculator) who housed Abraham Lincoln, belonged to an abolitionist church, had a photograph of John Brown on the wall, and probably sheltered at least one escaped slave at his home in New York. Despite all that, there isn't a whit of evidence that he sheltered slaves in this house. He didn't need to -- Janesville (and there's no evidence Milton, 5 miles up the road, was different) was a place where an escaped slave could work openly, and when his slave-owner showed up looking for him, the town raised a mob and ran him off. True story (something even more dramatic happened in Milwaukee).

The house has a multi-colored stained glass window. Before my dad got there, the docents told visitors that it was used to "signal the slaves hiding down by the river". There's a cramped access stairway to the roof behind a door. The docents taught thousands of local schoolkids that slaves would run up to the roof and lay flat and "the sheriff thought it was just a cabinet". And so on.

these are 'feel-good' versions of Underground Railroad history that emphasize the helpfulness of abolitionist whites, and overly simplify and/or deemphasize the incredibly complex and cellular network that slaves and free blacks created to bring others to freedom

See, I'm skeptical of this revisionism. There was absolutely an extraordinary network, but it wasn't exceptionally segregated. From the 18th century there were whites, mainly religiously-motivated and often immigrants, who did not accept slavery and risked their livelihoods and sometimes lives to help. You shouldn't leave out mixed-race people, either. It seems incongruous to me to just downplay all that as "feel-good". There is an incredible history here and it isn't one sided.
posted by dhartung at 7:12 PM on January 23, 2007


True, dhartung, but I generally agree with theargument that there would have been an Underground Railroad even if there had been no sympathetic whites at all. Of course, there were, and quite a few of them, which is an important part of the story -- but the story should be told in balance.

Interesting stuff about the sites you were connected with, too. Thanks.
posted by Miko at 7:30 PM on January 23, 2007


Why not ask Douglass himself what he thinks of the Underground Railroad? His response might be:
I have never approved of the very public manner, in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the "Under- ground Railroad," but which, I think, by their open declarations, has been made, most emphatically, the "Upper- ground Railroad." Its stations are far better known to the slaveholders than to the slaves. I honor those good men and women for their noble daring, in willingly subjecting themselves to persecution, by openly avowing their participation in the escape of slaves; nevertheless, the good resulting from such avowals, is of a very questionable character. It may kindle an enthusiasm, very pleasant to inhale; but that is of no practical benefit to themselves, nor to the slaves escaping. Nothing is more evident, than that such disclosures are a positive evil to the slaves remaining, and seeking to escape. In publishing such accounts, the anti- slavery man addresses the slaveholder, not the slave; he stimulates the former to greater watchfulness, and adds to the facilities for capturing the slave.... (from Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855)
posted by smrtsch at 8:48 PM on January 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Now I just have to find a post debunking the French Underground (I know Sartre was scathing, but I can't find the article).

Perhaps in 100 years, we'll hear about the great Bagdhad Underground, or Afghan Underground.

(Really spectacular post.)
posted by klangklangston at 10:14 PM on January 23, 2007


It boggles my mind that one of the venues cited in the NYT article for the historical debate on "code quilts" was the Oprah Winfrey Show. First the book club, and now she's providing a forum for historical debate?

If you need me, I'll be in the back with my head asploding.

(Great post, btw.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:43 PM on January 23, 2007


I know Sartre was scathing

Are you sure you're not thinking about genuine members of the Résistance who were scathing about Sartre? "It was after all Sartre who identified collaboration with passivity and homosexuality, and, by implication, resistance with virility" (Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944, p. 508), but as I think we all know, "Sartre decided to write instead of being involved in active resistance" (as his Wikipedia entry puts it). When I hear the word Sartre, I reach for my Browning.
posted by languagehat at 5:23 AM on January 24, 2007


Wow! Interesting point of view from Douglass, smrtsch.
posted by Miko at 5:47 AM on January 24, 2007


Yeah, but Sartre also called the Resistance a national myth, and implied that it was mostly a fantasy of De Gaulle. And to be fair to Sartre, he did spend a fair amount of the time he was writing in a prison camp.
Though, again, since it's been several years since I had my Existentialism class, I can't find any of the articles that address his relationship with the Resistance.
posted by klangklangston at 6:31 AM on January 24, 2007


I find it interesting that the UGRR quilt theory wasn't published until 1999. I picked up a book at a stoop sale this summer, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, a children's picture book in which some slaves make a quilt with a map sewn into the pattern. Copyright date is 1993. The book is presented as fiction, not history, but at least the idea of using coded quilts predates the Oprah appearance.

Funny, I've heard about the coded quilt blocks, but never thought of them as something "new," rather as something I've always heard. It's easy to be taken in by stuff like this, even if you're skeptical by nature.
posted by rikschell at 10:14 AM on January 24, 2007


rischell: The historian covers this. If you read the articles in the UGRR quilt link, you'll find a timeline explaining the antecedents for the quilt code myth. In it, she says:
The first mention I have found of a "Quilt Code" - the idea that quilts were somehow used as signals by or for escaped slaves in connection with the Underground Railroad - is a single line in the voiceover narrative for Hearts and Hands, a 1987 video about women and quilts by feminists Pat Ferrera and Elaine Hedges:

They say quilts were hung on the clotheslines to signal a house was safe for runaway slaves.

Strangely, the companion book, coauthored by Julie Silber, contains no such statement...
She then traces how the idea resurfaces through the late 80s, making its first appearance in children's literature in the Faith Ringold book in the post (1992) and then in Sweet Clara... (1993), also linked in the post.

Hidden in Plain View, when it came out in 1999, seemed to be offering the first oral history confirmation of a quilt code, but as you'll see if you read the articles, there are a lot of problems with the reliability of the information. But the idea of a quilt code existed more than ten years, at least, before Hidden.... .

Personally, I think it's the children's books being taught as representative of fact that do the most damage, since curriculum tends to be written around these sorts of engaging materials, and since we generally treat things we learn as children as gospel truth.
posted by Miko at 11:39 AM on January 24, 2007


Miko -

The site I linked to above has a super obsessive-compulsive debunking of the whole quilting thing, if you've got an hour or so to spare.

Those pages are in the link in the main post - just so you know I didn't miss them. This post was actually partially constructed around them.


Oops! That's what I get for not clicking through each of the links. I had bookmarked that article months ago, and though I was so cool to add it to the conversation... oh well...

Fantastic post!
posted by MythMaker at 3:46 PM on January 24, 2007


No less cool for adding your enthusiasm!

I only learned of the research this week. It's neat stuff.
posted by Miko at 4:09 PM on January 24, 2007


Good job all around, friends, thanks to all who added information to this post.
posted by LarryC at 10:15 PM on January 24, 2007


« Older Andre the Giant, Greatest Drunkard of all Time...   |   The Challenge of Global Health... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments