History of the Slave Quilts

Harriet Powers quilts makering (born 1837-1911) her quilts design’s are scenes from the Old and New Testaments (c. National Museum of American History at Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Our earliest examples of American Quilt were designed by the Pilgrims Puritans and other who were fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Shiploads of indentured servants arrived here from England, Ireland, wales and France.  They became extraordinary quilt makers and labored hard for subsistent wages.  These were persons who sold themselves into a life of servitude for a certain period of time in order to pay for their passage to the New World.  Offend payment for their debt was made from the sale of quilts.  But, unlike the blacks who were brought against their will to this country, these indentured servants could look forward to their eventual freedom.  During colonial time, quilting was a prized skill that might allow a slave to earn a few pennies here and there, but it would take more than a lifetime of stitching for a slave to earn her freedom at that pittance.

Her quilts design’s are scenes from the Old and New Testaments (c. National Museum of American History at Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Not surprisingly then, slaves would quilt away during the night in order to flee the plantation and escape to freedom.  During this time of bondage, the quilt became an agent of aide that helped countless slaves find their way to Promised Land.  Abolitionists, such as the Quakers designed a quilt pattern call Jacobs ladder which was utilized as a code to identify safe houses for runaway slaves.  Because most slaves could not either read or write, quilts also functioned as a historical recorded of events in their lives using particular colors and shapes as markers, certain patterns were created that world depict places, events or feeling.

For example, when a child was born on a plantation a scrap of red was often sewn into the quilt as a symbol of fertility.  Black scraps were ominous while blue scraps were believed to protect the maker of the quilt.  White scraps indicated peace or tranquility.  The few that can be proved to be made are probably in museums.  Many slave quilts were lost, stolen or burnt during the Civil War ear.  The few that survived are considered treasures.


Perform and tell stories from the quilts some they have designed while others they have faithfully reproduces from our own research.  Through song, dance, art and quilting they entertain and educate people in guild, school, and churches.

#1. Sweet Clara freedom quilt based on a true little known chapter in African. American History, tells us of a young slave girl called Sweet Clara.  After being sold apart from her mother, she was made to work the fields where she met a young boy named Jack.  Clara was so weak from working the fields that she was not able to bare her burdens.  She met a women named Aunt Rachel who helped her get a position in the master quarters.  Clara became a seamstress and began to piece together a map that was disguised as a quilt.  Remembering the locations and landmarks that many slaves told her about, she and Jack found her mother and sister and fled to freedom.  The quilt was left on the plantation where other runaways found their freedom.

#2. Each block tells a bit of history in the life of Harriet Tubman.  The bottom of the quilt represents the southern states were slavery began.  The story continues its way up north, which represents the promise land, north were many slaves found their freedom.

#3. Jacobs Ladder or Underground Railroad Quilt before the Emancipation of Slavery a sympathizers used this type of pattern as a code to aid the slaves on their way up night.

#4. Free At Last the figures in this symbolic piece are looking toward heaven for direction and following the North Star.  The rays present hope.  The Jacobs ladder pattern on the left side and bottom was a pattern the Quakers used as a secret code to signal runaway slaves to let them know where the safe houses were.  Triangles indicate a prayer message and a touch of blue to insure protection.

#5. Seven Quilts for Seven Sisters depicts eight slave women take from the presentation call A Stitch In Time.  Each block portrays a sister acting out part of her script, along with the viola player and her old rhythm turns.

#6. The cake walk 100 years. 1865 to 1965 Miss. Kat a popular dance during the slave dance performed by couples parading around squire or circle starting and kicking high into the air.  Proceeded by graceful swirls and turns.  With head held high they are judged, always keeping in the time with the fiddle and banjo. 

#7. In 1863, by the time the Civil War had started, there were 4 million slaves being bought and sold to cotton, tobacco and rice Plantations in the south.

#8. Company cumin five little mammies with pies in their heads.  In the enter block a little boy looks up diligently, anticipating the arrival of company.

(c. Lawrence E. Walker Foundation Collection, 2004)



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