Stamper's quilts focus on Tubman, freedom block

By PHILIP CASE State Journal Columnist Published:

Their hearts yearning for freedom, thousands of those enslaved in the South prior the Civil War traveled that elusive phenomenon known as the "underground railroad" toward the North and freedom during the 19th century, especially from 1830-65.

Described as "neither underground nor a railroad," the escape route was a network of paths and roads, through swamps and over mountains, across rivers and even by sea. Moving usually under cover of darkness to avoid apprehension and return to their owners on southern plantations, these slaves often left behind their loved ones and what few possessions they had to seek that which we take for granted ... freedom.

To make their escape effectively, they required help along the way. But by law they'd never been allowed to learn to read or write for fear they might join together and overthrow their white owners. So a series of signs was devised which communicated to the weary sojourners safety or danger.

One such way was through the use of quilts which contained encoded messages. Frankfort's Martha Jo Stamper has created two quilted wall hangings celebrating the underground railroad. The one honoring former slave Harriet Tubman features what's known as the "log cabin block."

"When a quilt having that block was displayed near a house," said Stamper, "escaping slaves knew it was a safe place for them to come in for food, shelter, and provisions. Another quilt signaled danger and they knew to take cover or to keep moving."

The quilts were typically hung on a clothes line or fence near the house, she said.

"And since they couldn't read, there had to be some symbol that was recognizable to them."

Stamper's other quilted wall hanging honors civil rights giant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both will hang in an exhibition at Transylvania University focusing on the underground railroad and its results.

For more on this story, see the latest State Journal.

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