Quilts as messages? That is what the Neosho Lions Club learned at its meeting on October 20. Brenda Woods, a genealogy librarian at the Neosho/Newton County library, spoke about underground railroad quilts and how they were used as signals by escaping slaves from the late 1700s until 1865.

Quilts as messages? That is what the Neosho Lions Club learned at its meeting on October 20. Brenda Woods, a genealogy librarian at the Neosho/Newton County library, spoke about underground railroad quilts and how they were used as signals by escaping slaves from the late 1700s until 1865.
Woods was aided by Nancy Boydston, who is the owner of a “sampler” underground railroad quilt used during the presentation. Boydston said she made the quilt squares as a project with the Joplin quilters club. Later, she took the squares and made them into a quilt.
Woods  explained how each quilt square conveyed a message to runaway slaves who passed by. The quilts were simply displayed on a clothesline or hung on a porch rail or fence to “air out.” They were in plain view, but only those who knew their messages were able to use them for communication.
    Woods was amazed at how the slaves were able to communicate the meanings. For example, a quilt pattern of flying geese pointing toward the north was used as a compass and meant freedom in the free states or Canada.
    She also told that slave blacksmiths were good at passing on the messages of the underground railroad quilts. Most plantations did not need a full-time blacksmith, so the smithy were moved from plantation to plantation. Because most slaves were not allowed to read, all communication had to be passed on by word-of-mouth. The blacksmith were a good source for passing message from plantation to plantation.
    Sometimes the color of the center square of a quilt block gave a message. Sometimes the quilt block said that a safe house was present or of danger down the road.
    Woods said the term “underground railroad” was used because the slaves and those who were helping them escape used railroad terms to describe the escape. For example: an "agent” was someone who was helping with the escape. “Hardware” was for men escaping, and “dry goods” referred to ladies.
    If a quilt had blocks with wrenches on them, it communicated that some slaves were starting to prepare to escape and those who were going with them should make ready.
    Quilts have been used as bed covers for many years. They are warm, durable, and make good use of old clothing and sewing scraps. Few people realize that the patterns on a homemade quilt could also send messages to others.