Emory Report

February 21, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 22

Reading, book to examine messages behind quilts

By Eric Rangus

Quilts are practical. They provide warmth and protection from the cold.

Quilts are artistic. They are born of a craft passed down from generation to generation. Their design can be as essential to a room's decoration as the paint on its walls.

Quilts are also, according to a 1999 book by Jacquelyn Tobin and Raymond Dobard, a lifesaving form of communication.

That book, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, reveals the hidden messages African American quilters wove into their works to help runaway slaves on their perilous escape from captivity.

Tobin will read from and describe the ideas behind the book at 7 p.m., Feb. 24, in 311 Bishops Hall, as part of the University's African American Heritage Month activities.

She also will answer questions and sign copies of the work. The event is free and open to the public.

"This is an important and interesting book because it examines the iconography of the symbolism of quilts made by African Americans," said Rudolph Byrd, director of African American studies. "It chronicles and documents the history of this form of American folk art."

The book centers around Ozella McDaniel Williams, whom Tobin met while browsing through the Old Market Building in Charleston, S.C. A quilter, Williams spoke to Tobin and began telling her a story about how slaves made coded quilts, to help navigate their escape on the Underground Railroad. It was a tale that had been passed down in Williams' family from generation to generation.

That was 1993. Tobin gathered information from Williams over the next three years, then sat down with Dobard, an art history professor at Howard University, to put Williams' quilting tales into the wider context of African American history.

Through their research, Tobin and Dobard uncovered a sophisticated communication network that melded African textile traditions and American quilt practices to convey messages of escape for runaway slaves.

Quilts are just a part of the complex web of secret communication used by slaves that Hidden in Plain View explores. The book links quilting to slave narratives, folk songs, spirituals, documented slave codes and children's stories.

"This event is designed for a broad audience," Byrd said. "It's not specifically for a scholarly audience, although faculty will be in attendance. There are a number of people interested in African American studies in the Atlanta area and many who are interested in quiltmaking."

Tobin lives in Denver, where she is a teacher, collector and writer of women's stories. She coauthored 1995's The Tao of Women, which gathered Taoist explanations and teachings that apply to women.

Dobard has been at Howard since 1975. For the last 14 years, his research has focused on the history and construction of quilts.

For more information on this event, please contact African American Studies at 404-727-6847.

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