Historical myths and coded slave quilts on the Underground Railroad

Posted March 29th, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , , ,

"Women's Quilts as Art"Historian Paul Finkelman writes at The Root about the discovery of a sixth-grade reading comprehension test, online from the Massachusetts Department of Education, which reiterates the old myth that coded quilts were used to warn runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad.

This old legend, about coded messages in quilts which told escaped slaves of safe houses and routes to freedom, is common in the United States. Historians agree, however, that there is no truth to these detailed assertions; as Finkelman puts it, this myth has long been known to be “totally fabricated.” Nevertheless, the story of coded slave quilts has frequently been written about as truth, and the story often appears in the interpretation of slavery for the public at historic sites.

This is an appealing myth for many Americans, blending as it does the horrors of slavery with the bravery of the enslaved, who are seeking their own freedom; in some versions of the story, the quilts are even made and displayed by progressive white southerners, doing their part to fight the injustice of their society.

At the Tracing Center, we believe strongly in the importance of separating truth from fiction in conveying the history of slavery to the general public. Myths like that of the slave quilt never contribute to a better understanding of this history or its legacy today, and often exist precisely because they serve to obscure historical realities that would otherwise challenge comforting notions that keep us from deeper understanding of our heritage and its consequences.

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A sad and sorry continuity: the North in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Posted November 16th, 2012 by
Category: History, Popular Culture Tags: , , , , , ,

U.S. House of Representatives passes 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, by two votesI’m one of the jaded ones now.

So it surprised me not to find Fernando Wood rearing his pro-slavery head again, this time as a Democratic Congressman from New York. Here he was on the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, showing up in 1865 as a vocal opponent in Congress to the passage of the 13th amendment. I knew of him from four years earlier, when in 1861, as mayor of New York City, on the heels of South Carolina’s secession, he proposed that the city should also secede from the Union. He was well aware that New York’s economy was inextricably tied to slavery.

Once you know about the North’s complicity in slavery and racism you see the through-line almost everywhere you look. The winter-spring of 1865 that is the subject of Lincoln thus becomes just one more chapter.

In the popular, white, non-southern imagination, we put Lincoln on a pedestal, but we subconsciously put ourselves on that pedestal too, because he is our symbol of northern determination to end slavery. That was us. The good guys.

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Civil War’s dirty secret about slavery

Posted April 12th, 2011 by
Category: History, News and Announcements Tags: , ,

We have an op-ed today at CNN.com on how to understand the relationship of the North to slavery and race on the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

The essay, written by Executive Director Katrina Browne and Managing Director James DeWolf Perry, builds on our ongoing work around the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the enduring historical myths which blind us to the legacy of slavery and race today.

Here is how the op-ed begins:

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, a war that redefined national and regional identities and became an enduring tale of noble resistance in the South and, for the rest of the country, a mighty moral struggle to erase the stain of slavery.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on the beleaguered Union garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. By April 14, the fort had fallen and the war had begun in earnest.

By the time Fort Sumter was again in Union hands, following the evacuation of Charleston in the closing days of the war in 1865, the war had become the bloodiest in the nation’s history — and has not been surpassed. Yet the relationship of the North to the South, and to slavery before and during the war is not at all what we remember today. The reality is that both North and South were profoundly complicit in slavery and deeply reluctant to abolish our nation’s “peculiar institution.”

To read the full article, go to “Civil War’s dirty secret about slavery” at CNN.com.


What you didn’t learn in history class

Posted December 3rd, 2010 by
Category: History Tags: , ,

South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” adopted by the state legislature on December 24, 1860, mentions the word “slave” 18 times.  The following passage (emphasis added) from the document clearly makes the case for secession due to the fact that the Federal Government encroached on their rights to own slaves.
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