Each patch on the intricate quilts helped take slaves one step closer to the freedom they’d only dreamed about. One patch symbolized what items they should carry on the long journey to Canada. Another represented the zigzag paths to take to avoid getting caught.
“The slaves knew the code, but no one else did,” says Stella Robertson. “It was ingenious. Each block represented how they were to escape.”
Inspired by the struggles and courage of those who escaped slavery, Robertson and other Beulah Grove Baptist Church members made a replica of one of the quilts slaves used to help guide them through the Underground Railroad more than 200 years ago. The quilt, along with antique pieces from private collectors and original pieces from local artists, is part of the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History’s African-American Quilt Exhibition in Augusta, Ga. Fourteen Quilts from New York and parts of Georgia are also part of the exhibition, which started Oct. 5 and will run through Nov. 30, says Christine Miller-Betts, the executive director of the museum.
Beulah Grove’s quilt project, which opened in December and was completed last month, was a way to bond and create something as meaningful as their ancestors did years ago, says Barbara Seigler, a church member and quilter.
For the past 17 years, the annual exhibition has showcased the significance of quilts in Black culture, Miller-Betts says. “During slavery, people made their own quilts because they needed the warmth. Now it’s an emerging art,” she says. “They used old pieces of clothing, burlap bags and whatever they could find.”
Quilts also related stories about family and served as a memorial for slaves who could not afford tombstones or other memorials for family members, says Margaret Gray, another Beulah Grove member and quilter. Church members learned of the Underground Railroad connection to quilts from the book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, and now they would like to share the history with Augustans, Seigler says.
The Beulah Grove quilters plan to offer quilting classes early next year and will continue to tell the history of quilts, Gray says. “This is important,” she says. “It took a lot of courage to take something and communicate it nonverbally to help them to freedom.”