Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad

by Jacqueline L Tobin & Raymond G Dobard

Other authorsMaude S. Wahlman (Foreword)
Paperback, 2000




Anchor (2000), Edition: 1st Anchor Books, 240 pages


The fascinating story of a friendship, a lost tradition, and an incredible discovery, revealing how enslaved men and women made encoded quilts and then used them to navigate their escape on the Underground Railroad.   In Hidden in Plain View, historian Jacqueline Tobin and scholar Raymond Dobard offer the first proof that certain quilt patterns, including a prominent one called the Charleston Code, were, in fact, essential tools for escape along the Underground Railroad. In 1993, historian Jacqueline Tobin met African American quilter Ozella Williams amid piles of beautiful handmade quilts in the Old Market Building of Charleston, South Carolina. With the admonition to "write this down," Williams began to describe how slaves made coded quilts and used them to navigate their escape on the Underground Railroad. But just as quickly as she started, Williams stopped, informing Tobin that she would learn the rest when she was "ready." During the three years it took for Williams's narrative to unfold--and as the friendship and trust between the two women grew--Tobin enlisted Raymond Dobard, Ph.D., an art history professor and well-known African American quilter, to help unravel the mystery. Part adventure and part history, Hidden in Plain View traces the origin of the Charleston Code from Africa to the Carolinas, from the low-country island Gullah peoples to free blacks living in the cities of the North, and shows how three people from completely different backgrounds pieced together one amazing American story. With a new afterword. Illlustrations and photographs throughout, including a full-color photo insert.… (more)


(46 ratings; 3)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Djupstrom
I had high hopes for this book. I assumed it would be a great story of the underground railroad. WRONG. It was like a poorly written college textbook. I didn't enjoy it at all.
LibraryThing member sdunford
Interesting topic but disappointing due to the paucity of illustrations. Especially frustrating when authors alluded to quilts pictured in other books
LibraryThing member ScoutJ
OK, so I know its actually a myth (now...)but still interesting and good for tracking down other sources...
LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
I bought this book at the gift shop at New Market Battlefield in Virginia. It purports to explain secret codes embedded in quilts and spirituals, supposedly used to convey messages to escaping slaves, but much of it is highly speculative. Neither the contemporary quilts nor the humans involved are
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around to document or verify the practice of passing information in this fashion. It is well illustrated, but the writing is pretty dry, like a term paper for a required subject. The book does contain worthwhile historical information on quilting patterns and techniques, African fabrics, plantation life, Underground Railroad routes and so on. It includes an excellent time-line of 4 centuries of significant events in the history of slavery. There must be better sources for this information, however.
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LibraryThing member jessibud2
In 1994,Jacqueline was visiting historic Charleston when she stopped at the famous Old Marketplace and was drawn to a stand selling beautiful quilts. She bought one and the vendor, an elderly African American woman, started to tell her a story about how quilts were used by slaves to communicate on
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the Underground Railroad. This was something Jacqueline had never heard before but several months passed before she began what was to become a long, and fascinating quest to learn about the secret codes of the quilts. With the help of many historian and quilters, she traced African cultural history, cultural memory, oral history and the stories of codes, spirituals, and secret societies both in Africa and in the USA. Mrs. Ozella McDaniel Williams, the woman who initially sold Jacqueline the quilt and started her on her journey, was a *griot*, an African term for a storyteller and keeper of cultural and heritage, usually passed down from generation to generation. Gradually, the quilt code patterns were revealed. The various patterns used in quilting, from the designs, to the colours, to the stitching, each represented a message, a direction or a directive, guiding the slaves in their attempts to escape slavery and make their way north to Canada and freedom. Since slaves in the 1800s were not legally allowed to learn to read or write, their songs, or spirituals also often contained coded messages, thus rendering songs and quilts - all *hidden in plain view* - a sort of audio-visual form of communication between them.

One particular example I found fascinating was that each *safe* station along the way had a code name. For example Detroit, Michigan was *Midnight*, and Dresden, Ontario (Canada) was *Dawn*. The coded message *from Midnight to Dawn* meant to travel from Detroit to Dresden. This was given as a sample of a specific coded message but it struck me particularly because I happen to also have another book by Jacqueline Tobin, published 8 years after Hidden in Plain View. Its title? From Midnight to Dawn - The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad. Suddenly, that title took on a whole new meaning for me.

Hidden in Plain View has illustrations, photos, a glossary and a timeline, and is fascinating reading, giving new insight into a part of history we thought we knew but are still learning about.
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LibraryThing member yvonne.sevignykaiser
Read this for Tomball Library Non-Fiction Book Group. I have wanted to check this book out for some time and was glad to have it pop up on my book club list.

Interesting read but not sure of the plausibility I have read some accounts that discount the information based on when certain quilt designs
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are know to appear.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
This is a book with interesting information, an extensive bibliography, and some pictures. However, it is repetitive and not seamlessly written. I imagine Tobin wrote it thinking it would be used for research, but since it is not indexed.... It is a shame that Tobin did not pay for an editor to
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tighten it up. As an example, it frequently suggests to the reader to "see the color photo section." The Kindle version does have some color photographs, but there is NO "color photo section."
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Original language


Original publication date

1999 (copyright)

Physical description

240 p.; 5.15 inches


0385497679 / 9780385497671
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