Show way quilts have a rich history, as intricate as the fabrics and threads that hold them together. Like so many quilts, show ways are said to have a secret meaning all of their own – messages sewn into the fabric for slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad. Quilts were made of a wide variety of patterns – some with names like “wagon wheel,” “tumbling blocks,” “wrench,” and “bear’s paw.” The work of sewing often fell to slaves, and according to some, their skills were used to send messages, hidden in the fabric patterns of quilts hung on fences, trees, and clotheslines, to other slaves. These messages are said to have helped many escape from slavery into a life of freedom. Each quilt pattern had a different meaning, and young children are sure to delight in stories about and images of the beautiful, mysterious, and epic maps to freedom.
Notable children’s books about show way quilts and the Underground Railroad:
- Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson illustrated by Hudson Talbott. This book, a lyrical family history of Woodson’s own ancestry, is one of my favorite children’s books of all time. In this story, Woodson’s elegant prose tells the story of generations of slaves, most separated from their families at very young ages, and how they sewed show way quilts so that others might find their way north, to freedom. The story is heart-wrenching; we begin with a little girl being sold away from her family when she is only seven years old. Yet, in Woodson’s expert way, she shows us the beauty that Black women created from almost nothing – rags of clothes, flour sacks, and bits of muslin. The story travels through the history of the Black experience in America – from slavery to the Civil Rights movement, to the year the book was published, 2005. The book, also available in audio format here on Hoopla, is a Newbery Award Honor Book, a rare prestige for a children’s book.
- Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Skyby Faith Ringgold. In this beautifully written and illustrated children’s book, Cassie, the character who was able to fly high above the skyline of New York City in Ringgold’s Tar Beach, returns again. This time, Cassie has Aunt Harriet (Harriet Tubman) to guide her on the journey many slaves took to escape to freedom. Aunt Harriet shows Cassie the North Star, sings songs that escaping slaves often sang, and teaches her to decode the messages in Underground Railroad quilt codes.
- Stitchin’ and Pullin’by Pat McKissack, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. In this children’s book of poems, the reader follows a little girl named Baby Girl as she begins sewing her very first quilt. The book simultaneously tells Baby Girl’s story of learning to quilt from her family, including her mother and grandmother, while also telling the true story of Gee’s Bend quiltmakers. Gee’s Bend is a small black community in Alabama. The Gee’s Bend quiltmakers have been sewing quilts since the 1920s and still sew to this day. While the poems don’t reference show way quilts, they do highlight the importance of quilting in the Black community throughout history. After all, “Mama told me, / ‘Cloth has a memory.’”
The subject of slavery can be difficult and daunting to teach to young children. Like so many other topics, an excellent way to begin open and honest conversations with our children is through picture books. I hope your children will be delighted by the magic, the freedom, and the creativity in quilts. The stories of show way quilts are often filled with heartbreak and loss, yet Black creators were able to stitch the shattered pieces of their people into powerful works of art – show way quilts. Perhaps, one day, your children will be inspired by these creators and will want to make a quilt of their own.