Slaves secretly guided by quilts

Each patch on the intricate quilts helped take slaves one step closer to the freedom they'd only dreamed about.

One patch symbolized what items they should carry on the long journey to Canada. Another represented the zig-zag path to take in order to avoid getting caught.

"The slaves knew the code, but no one else did," said Stella Robertson. "It was ingenious. Each block represented how they were to escape."

Inspired by the struggle and courage of those who escaped slavery, Mrs. Robertson and other Beulah Grove Baptist Church members made a replica of one of the quilts slaves used to help guide them through the Underground Railroad more than 200 years ago.

The quilt, along with others, is part of the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History's African-American Quilt Exhibition.

Quilts from New York and other parts of Georgia are also part of the exhibition starting Sunday, said Christine Miller Betts, the executive director of the museum.

Beulah Grove's quilt project, which began in December and was completed last month, was a way to bond and create something meaningful as their ancestors did years ago, said Barbara Seigler, a church member and quilter.

For the past 17 years, the exhibition has showcased the significance of quilts in black culture, Mrs. Betts said.

"During slavery, people made their own quilts because they needed the warmth. Now, it's an emerging art," she said. "They used old pieces of clothing, burlap bags and whatever they could find."

Quilts also told stories about family and served as a memorial for slaves who could not afford tombstones or other memorials for family members, said Margaret Gray, another Beulah Grove member and quilter.

Church members learned of the Underground Railroad connection to quilts from the book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, and now they would like to share the history with Augustans, Mrs. Seigler said.

The Beulah Grove quilters plan to offer quilting classes early next year and will continue to tell the history of quilts, Mrs. Gray said.

"This is important," she said. "It took a lot of courage to take something and communicate it nonverbally to help them to freedom."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

QUILT EXHIBITION

The African American Quilt Exhibition will be on display from Sunday to Nov. 30 at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, 1116 Phillips St. An opening reception will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the museum.