Learning to read between the stitches

Expert discusses quilts with messages used by Underground Railroad

February 11, 2002|By Betsy Diehl | Betsy Diehl,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At a glance, it seems fairly innocuous. A visitor conducts a children's program about quilts at the Savage library. She reads a story, discusses quilting patterns and helps youngsters make quilt blocks using colored paper and glue.

She throws around pattern names with the deftness of Martha Stewart - the bear paw, the Ohio star, the nine patch. But you notice that her shirt is emblazoned with a National Security Agency logo. And as you listen to her discuss each pattern, you realize that, like the quilts themselves, there is more to this bee than meets the eye.

Jennifer Wilcox, assistant curator of the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum, went to the Savage library last week to talk about the hidden meanings stitched into 19th-century quilts used by slaves to aid their escape via the Underground Railroad. Called "slave quilts," they looked like ordinary quilts, except to those who were privy to their covert messages.

A folksy quilt might seem out of place amid the sophisticated gear used by cryptanalysts past - the museum is home to books, artifacts and devices used throughout history to make and break secret codes. But these quilts were part of an ingenious communication system devised by slaves and shrouded in secrecy.

The system remained undetected in part because of the quilts' ordinary appearance: It "had to look like a quilt, but also have hidden messages," Wilcox told the 30-plus children and their parents who gathered at the library. Each pattern was widely used at the time, but only those involved in the Underground Railroad knew the concealed meanings. An unwritten coded poem, shared orally - never in writing - served as the key to the cryptographs.

As slaves fled north, they looked for the stealthy quilts to give them guidance, direction and comfort, Wilcox said. A quilt with a bear paw design served as a prompt to follow the animal trails. A pattern called "bow tie" warned slaves to change their clothes to look less conspicuous. The Ohio star pattern reminded the travelers to follow the North Star.

To the uninformed, it was a quilt. To those in the know, it was a cryptogram, translatable to something reminiscent of a map.

Wilcox provided paper samples of the patterns to show the audience, and members of Girl Scout cadet Troop 4126 of North Laurel showed a slave quilt they have been stitching since fall.

Wilcox, who coordinates educational outreach for the museum, said that programs usually are held at the museum, making it a popular field trip destination for older elementary school children. Most of the activities involve cryptanalysis, the process of deciphering coded messages.

Karen Trennepohl, branch manager at the Savage library, so enjoyed her visit to the museum in the summer that she asked about the museum visiting the library.

Wilcox, 39, tailored the quilt program to the young library audience, using information from a book about slave quilts, Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. Dobard designed a replica of a slave quilt that is displayed at the museum. Stitched by volunteer quilters, it was dedicated to the museum last year in honor of Black History Month, and is part of the permanent collection.

For Wilcox, sharing the museum with children, and possibly sparking their interest in the field of cryptology, is the best part of her job: "Kids sometimes think it's going to be boring. "It's great to see them light up and enjoy it."

The National Cryptologic Museum is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, except holidays. The museum is on Colony Seven Road, off Route 32 near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway exits. Large groups must make an appointment in advance. Information: 301-688- 5849.

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