Quilt Exhibit at WVSU Depicts Slaves’ Journey Along Underground Railroad

Quilt Exhibit at WVSU Depicts Slaves’ Journey Along Underground Railroad
Historic exhibit part of W.Va. State University Homecoming Week

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- Nineteenth-century slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad did not have the aid of text messaging, e-mail or even letters for communication. Instead, theories suggest that other, unconventional methods were used to guide them to freedom. One such method – coded messages sewn into quilts – is on display at West Virginia State University through Oct. 6.

Howard Wilson and his daughter, Teresa Kemp, both WVSU graduates, are sharing five generations of family heirlooms with the Underground Railroad Secret Quilt Code Exhibit, on display at the Della Brown Taylor Art Gallery in the WVSU Davis Fine Arts Building during Homecoming celebrations.  

Not only are the quilts a treasured piece of history from the family of Wilson’s late wife, Serena, they are symbolic on a deeper level. The quilts are thought to depict secret messages that were intended for slaves escaping to freedom before, and during, the Civil War.  

“People would design the quilts as coded messages to help the slaves who were escaping as part of the Underground Railroad,” says Wilson, referring to the network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves attempting to escape to free states.

One quilt, called Wagon Wheel, featuring wheel patterns sewn into the blocks, meant to prepare for travel and take whatever tools and food were available. Another, called Drunken Path, featuring a busy pattern of lines, warned escapees not to travel in a straight line.   

The Tumbling Block quilt, with its cascading pattern of block shapes, signifies Niagara Falls. Getting to the falls meant crossing into Canada – and into freedom. The quilts are said to have been placed along fences as a message to travelers.

While the code theory is disputed by some historians, the quilts are nonetheless steeped in historical significance, which Wilson shares with excitement and honor. He is thrilled to have the quilts on display at WVSU, which he has called home since birth, and even before. His mother was a State student while pregnant with Wilson.

“I was born very near campus,” he says. “My mother’s friends would babysit me while she went to class.”
Wilson’s mother was neither the first nor the last in the family to walk the halls at State. Twenty-nine members of Wilson’s family have attended the Institution, the first being his great aunt, who graduated in 1917. Wilson graduated in 1955 as a music major. He was also a member of the ROTC and was inducted in the University’s ROTC Hall of Fame in 1984. 

“It’s sort of like home for me,” he says when asked why he keeps returning. Despite living in Columbus, Ohio, Wilson has been a regular visitor during commencements and Homecoming celebrations for years. 
He served as the first vice president, and then president, of the University’s National Alumni Association and was instrumental in the successful campaigns for university status and the reinstatement of WVSU as a land-grant institution.

Bringing the Quilt Code exhibit to WVSU allows Wilson and Kemp to share both their family heritage and a bit of history. They have taken the exhibit on the road to several venues and launched a website, www.plantationquilts.com, to showcase the quilts and their history. 

The Underground Railroad Secret Quilt Code Exhibit is on display in the Davis Fine Arts Building from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 6.
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