Like the quilts and the 1876 family Bible that are the heart of Connie Martin’s story, much of the knowledge she shares has been handed down, developed over time. Martin recently spoke at the Evanston History Center about how an enslaved ancestor “became an abolitionist assisting freedom seekers” by using “codes” in quilts. 

Connie Martin and her mother, Clarice Boswell Credit: Connie Martin

The story she tells in her presentation, “Pre-Civil War Quilts: Secret Codes to Freedom on the Underground Railroad,” is her family’s story, unique to them, but not singular. There were many routes to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Much of the information was relayed orally since most slaves could not read or write. 

Martin’s mother, Clarice Boswell, 84, developed the original presentation around 2002 to coincide with the publication of a book she wrote, Lizzie’s Story: A Slave Family’s Journey to Freedom. 

Boswell developed the presentation nine years after completing her doctorate in education. As she writes in the book, she was “so impressed with the historical research defining the struggle of historically black institutions that she continued her research to include the origin, struggle and journey of her family.”

Some of the quilt patterns that served as codes for escaping slaves. Top, Boxes, Bear Paws, Log Cabin. Bottom: Quilt Code Sampler, Carpenters Wheel. Monkey Wrench. Credit: Connie Martin

She presented it for 16 years and decided to pass it on to me the last year before my retirement. In 2015 I started presenting,” said Martin. Since then, Martin has continued to research, enhance, edit and refine the presentation. She developed a PowerPoint presentation to be able to include photographs, maps and other media. Often she learns new information from people in the audience at the venues where she speaks. 

According to Martin, Quaker abolitionists first started helping slaves escape from slave owners in the late 1770s. That is when the quilt codes were first developed as a stealthy way of relaying information. Slaves fleeing knew to look for quilts displayed in a window, on a tree or a clothesline. The various patterns and colors of the quilts indicated lifesaving information including directions, where it was possible to get a meal or a place to sleep, and if there was danger nearby.  

The codes were a closely guarded secret, furtively passed along by abolitionists to blacksmiths who were “lent out” from one plantation owner to others for a fee. The blacksmith shared the codes with the most trusted house servant on each plantation he visited.

The house servant taught the codes to those planning to escape. They shared other essential information such as “plan to leave on a cloudy or moonless night” and “rub onions or turpentine on your feet to hide your smell from any dog sent out to find you.” 

Martin stands in front of some of the quilt patterns used as codes for escaping slaves. Top left to right: Flying Geese, Sailboat, North Star, Ring of Roses, Rose Wreath. Below, Shoofly, Crossroads, Bow Tie, Britches, Shirts & Pants. Credit: Connie Martin

Martin’s Feb. 2 presentation at the Evanston History Center included quilt replicas that provided examples of the different codes. In a follow-up email after an interview, Martin explained one of the quilt patterns.

“The quilt pattern code Log Cabin goes back in history as used in the 1850s. The code meant a safe house stop on the Underground Railroad. An abolitionist might draw the pattern in the dirt at a predetermined point on the journey to signify that a safe house was very near. Look for the quilt upon your approach. The quilt hung up with a red center meant stop, not safe, hold your position until trouble has passed. The black center meant it was safe to come into the home and get food, water and rest from a “friend.”  (“Friend” was a code word for anti-slavery supporters/sympathizers.) This escape, like all escapes, took days, weeks, even months to plan,” wrote Martin.

When asked if this was her full-time job, Martin scoffed, “Oh, no! I only do this [speaking as a Roads Scholar with Illinois Humanities] part-time. It varies month by month … I also have another part-time job that I do in the mornings as a senior certified fitness instructor. I teach nine classes a week at Lifetime Fitness … and I babysit my 2-year-old granddaughter three days a week.”

And if that schedule wasn’t enough to tire most mortals, Martin recently completed and debuted a second presentation, “Hidden Messages in Negro Spirituals on the Underground Railroad.

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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  1. I am not quite convinced of the quilts theory in general. It seems to be more of a local tradition from Charleston, SC. So, I would like to know where Clarice Boswell lived as a slave. This would help to verify some of her details like the use of onions on shoes to ward off dogs. I have found credible evidence of this and the use of quilts as signals by white Confederate deserters in North Carolina. Can any one help here?