The Underground Railway Secret Code
Quilts hung out in a rainstorm, barrels stacked in careful sequence, boats tied to the dock with five knots facing one direction, songs of freedom and warning, a blacksmith's hammer ringing out in an undetectable sequence; all are evidence of the secret codes of the Underground Railroad: cryptic communications used to facilitate the safe passage of escaped slaves. The Code is central to Song Yet Sung, it's the mysterious, rhythmic backbone of the story, as much a mystery to the main character as it is to the reader. Much of the Code consisted of seemingly innocuous words or phrases that held greater meaning, e.g.: "The wind blows from the south today" warned that slave hunters were nearby. As with many oral histories, legend has mixed with fact, and details about the Code are disputed among historians.
Particularly controversial is the hypothesis that quilts were used to send coded messages, especially since none of the quilts have survived. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, which served as the basis for McBride's research about the code, recounts the oral history of Ozella McDaniel's family passed down through the generations. According to Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, authors of Hidden in Plain View, a seamstress would sew a sampler with various patterns which slaves would memorize. Later, in planning escapes, quilts bearing individual patterns were hung outside to give directions or warning - a secret system in plain view. The first quilt might have displayed a pattern representing a wrench, indicating that it was time to pack up tools and prepare for escape. A bear's paw quilt is believed to have advised slaves to head north over the Appalachian Mountains. "You were supposed to follow the literal footprints of the bear," Dobard says, "Bears always go to water and berries and other natural food sources."
This article was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the
January 2009 paperback release.
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