Using paper strips instead of fabric, Sanford Biggers here creates a collage reminiscent of the Log Cabin quilt pattern. Rumors tell of this pattern’s use in quilts along the Underground Railroad to show enslaved African Americans where safe houses were located. This idea of encoded quilts related to the Underground Railroad inspired Biggers’s The Floating World series, which explores the artform he became interested in after seeing the exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002. Strip-pieced patterns, like the Log Cabin, continue to be popular with African American quilters and are still commonly seen in quilts made by the famous African American quilters from Gee’s Bend.
The idea of quilts communicating messages to enslaved African Americans along the Underground Railroad was popularized in 1999 when Jaqueline Tobin, a white historian, and Dr. Raymond G. Dobard, an art history professor and well-known African American quilter, published Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. The book was discussed by many major media outlets but was quickly questioned by historians due to lack of written evidence and first-hand accounts about coded quilts. Of course, it does make sense something that secretive would not have been discussed or documented much.
Another issue historians have with this theory is the fact that some of the patterns that were said to hold coded messages were not documented in quilting until later. For example, block and strip construction was not common before the mid-1800s with the Log Cabin pattern specifically not appearing in the written record until the 1860s. Of course, quilts made by enslaved African Americans for their own use would not have received much attention at the time, and there are few still in existence for us to study. The ones that are documented are from closer to the end of the period of slavery in the U.S. and used mainly traditional patterns including the Log Cabin.
Log Cabin is essentially a strip-pieced pattern, and interestingly most traditional cloth from West Africa, the region most enslaved people were stolen from, was made by joining long narrow woven strips together. The Log Cabin pattern uses small squares that look similar to the cloth charm known as a “Mojo.” This charm, derived from West and Central African charm concepts, is not only decorative but also symbolizes safety for the person using it. If the Log Cabin pattern was indeed used to signal to enslaved African Americans that they had found a safe place, it was a very fitting coded symbol.
Leading authority on African American textiles Gladys-Marie Frye explains that enslaved African Americans would include disguised African American symbols on quilts made for the households of their captors. We also have evidence of ceramic pieces made and used by enslaved African Americans bearing designs matching African pottery art. This supports the idea that the African roots of enslaved quilters influenced their designs. Whether or not coded quilts were actually used along the Underground Railroad, it is important to note that enslaved African Americans frequently fought to escape their captors. Additionally, the cultural and historical connection enslaved African Americans and their descendants have to strip constructed cloth goods begs the question of how much influence they may have had on the still popular quilt patterns that use those construction techniques.
— Kimberly Cramer, curatorial fellow