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Hidden in Plain View: History Standard Two and the Underground
Railroad Quilt


Fran O’Malley
8th Grade History Teacher
Brandywine School District
Talley Middle School 

          One of the challenges I suspect most social studies teachers in Delaware are facing right now centers on the task of trying to find ways to help students master the standards so that they will perform successfully on the State assessments. If you are the kind of person I am, you spend a great deal of your professional time trying to analyze and isolate the individual pieces of the benchmarks that have been established for the grade clusters in which you teach. As most of us have learned, each benchmark typically consists of two or more assessable pieces – any of which may find its way onto the State test. Once the discrete pieces of a benchmark have been identified, we begin making predictions about how each construct will be assessed, then move on to the task of locating resources that may help us convert phrases into meaningful units of instruction.

            Locating the right resources is often a miss and hit exercise involving many hours of searching, especially if your life gets increasingly more disorganized as mine does over the course of any given school year. 

            Recently, I decided to rearrange the books on my eighteen-shelf bookcase in an effort to reduce the amount of time I spend searching for potential resources. I made this decision after having spent the better part of a morning searching unsuccessfully for a book that I purchased recently but have since misplaced. When I finished reorganizing, I sat way back in my reclining chair and gazed upon my finished work with a considerable degree of satisfaction. (It doesn’t take much to make me happy.) Each shelf appeared unique unto itself, sensibly organized, and aesthetically pleasing  - a literary quilt, I thought.

Suddenly, as I surveyed my finished work, my lids flew open as my eyes zoomed in on that elusive little gem that I had “misplaced” on the second shelf.  It had been there all the time. I yanked the book off of the shelf and started work on the lesson that appears below.

Before you look at the lesson, here is a little about the book. 

Hidden in Plain View

          In 1994, historian Jacqueline Tobin met Ozella McDaniel Williams, an African- American Quilter, in the Old Market Building of Charleston, South Carolina. Williams told Tobin a story that had been passed along from generation to generation in her family. In general terms, Williams described a secret communication system that employed quilt- making terminology as a message map for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad (UGRR).

            Williams’ story prompted Jacqueline Tobin to enlist the help of Raymond Dobard, an art history professor and well-known African-American quilter, in an attempt to help unravel the mystery of Williams’ claim to an Underground Railroad Quilt Code. Their efforts led to the publication of a fascinating book entitled Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (1999).

            While the thesis embedded within Tobin and Dobard’s book has unraveled an intriguing topic for ongoing research, it has also generated important questions surrounding the credibility of historical sources.

            In this lesson, students will employ pieces of the code that Williams, Tobin and Dobard present to construct their own Underground Railroad quilt. In the process, teachers are encouraged to lead students into an analysis of the credibility of historical evidence as it relates particularly to the transmission of Ozella McDaniel Williams’ story. 

Goals: Students will develop an awareness of the thesis which suggests that there may have been an Underground Quilt Code that provided signals to slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Students will also learn how to analyze historical sources with the aim of evaluating the credibility of historical theses. 

Objectives: At the conclusion of this lesson, students will

1.      have constructed a quilt using the UGRR codes suggested in Hidden in Plain View.

2.      be able to explain the meaning of their quilts,

3.      be able to list criteria that is useful in evaluating the credibility of historical sources and claims, and

4.      be able to apply criteria for evaluating the credibility of historical sources and claims. 

Benchmarks Addressed:

            *Delaware History Standard Two, Benchmark Two (6-8 Cluster) – “Examine historical documents, artifacts, and other materials and analyze them in terms of credibility, as well as the purpose, perspective, or point of view for which they were constructed.” 

Time to Complete: 3 class periods. 

Materials Needed:

            A copy or classroom set of the book entitled Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, construction paper, scissors, glue, and copies of Handout 1 - the UGRR Quilt Code.

Audience: intermediate/middle school students.


1.      Describe the UGRR Quilt Code research of Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard to the students in a whole class setting.

2.      Show a copy of the UGRR Quilt Code to the students on the overhead projector and review the code with the students. Distribute copies of the UGRR Quilt Code (Handout 1). *Note - I developed the Quilt Code chart using the information presented in Hidden in Plain View. You will want to consult the book to locate the pattern illustrations for each quilt pattern name identified in the first column of the chart. Be sure to show students copies of the pattern illustrations. They will need the illustrations to design their own construction paper quilts.

3.      Divide the class up into groups of 3-4 student teams.

4.      Distribute pieces of construction paper, scissors & tape to each group.

5.      Tell students that their group task is to create a UGRR Quilt out of construction paper using the patterns, symbols and signals suggested by Tobin and Dobard.

6.      After the students have completed their quilts, stop and ask them a series of questions that challenge them to think about the variables that must be considered for determining the credibility of a claim. For example, you may want to ask them,

a.       Do you believe that the earth has been visited by aliens from outer space?

b.      If someone told you that aliens have visited earth, would that be enough to convince you of alien visitations? (Incidentally, the bulk of Tobin and Dobard’s book describes the authors’ attempts to corroborate Ms. Williams’s Quilt Code story, and students should be made aware of this).

c.       Why do you (or do you not) believe that aliens have visited?

d.      What evidence do we have that aliens have visited?

e.       What evidence would you require to serve as proof of alien visitations (e.g. seeing the aliens themselves, viewing pictures of the aliens, reading articles in the newspaper, observing the president on TV telling the American people about aliens, gathering multiple pieces of evidence, concluding from popular consensus, etc.)? 

7.      Working in their groups,  have students construct a list of criteria that can be used to evaluate the credibility of claims.

8.      Read aloud or distribute copies of the Cuesta Benberry’s Foreword to Hidden in Plain View entitled “The Heritage of an Oral Tradition: The Transmission of Secrets in African American Culture” (1999, p. 2-3). Have the students summarize the main points made by Benberry. Then, ask the students to apply their criteria for evaluating credibility to the UGRR Quilt Code theory and Benberry’s thought-provoking argument.

9.      As a final activity, you may want the students to design a research plan (History Standard Two) that focuses on trying to uncover evidence to support or refute the theory of the UGRR Quilt Code.



            Assessment #1 - Assess students on the degree to which their UGRR Quilts match the Quilt Code suggested by Ozella McDaniel Williams’ and described by Tobin and Dobard. Then, ask students to explain the symbols and signals presented on their quilts.

            Assessment #2 – Have students compile a list of criteria that can be used to evaluate the credibility of historical sources. Then, ask the students to defend or refute the UGRR Quilt Code thesis, using their own criteria for determining credibility. You may want to have the students rank their credibility rating on a scale of 1-10 to help them understand that credibility is often measured in degrees rather than on a simplistic credible/incredible dichotomy.


            Copies of the UGRR Quilt Code.

Tips for the Teacher

            For younger students, you may want to build your lesson around the popular trade book, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson (1993).  In this fictional book, a young slave girl name Clara fashions a quilt map that she uses to escape to Canada on the UGRR. One of the authors of Hidden in Plain View (1999) – Jacqueline Tobin – states that Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt “encouraged me” to write the story of the UGRR Quilt Code (Tobin and Dobard, 1999, p.vii).   Instead of creating a construction paper quilt featuring the UGRR quilt code, however, the students may create a quilt map out of construction paper that represents a map that slaves could have used as guides on the UGRR.


Hopkinson, D. (1993). Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. New York: Alfred E. Knopf, Inc.

Tobin, J. L. and Dobard, R. G. (1999). Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. New York: Anchor Books.

Handout 1

The Underground Railroad Quilt Code

Quilt Pattern Name

(see Hidden in Plain View for the actual quilt patterns)

Message, Code or Signal

Citation (location of information in Hidden in Plain View)

Monkey’s Wrench

Gather all the tools needed on the journey to freedom.

p. 70

Bear’s Paw

Reminded slaves to follow the actual trail of bear footprints because it would lead to food and water.



City of Cleveland, Ohio – a major terminal on the Underground Railroad.

p. 97

Log Cabin

Draw a log cabin on the ground – a symbol to recognize persons with whom it was safe to communicate.

p. 104


Dress up in “cotton and bows (get rid of slave clothes & get a disguise). Go to the cathedral church, get married, and exchange double wedding rings.

p. 104

Bow Ties

 Make the best use of time (bow ties turned sideways look like an hourglass.

p. 107

Flying Geese

Symbolizes the fleeing of slaves and indicated directions in which they should travel.

p. 111

Drunkard’s Path

Encouraged fleeing slaves to follow a zigzag path similar to the staggering gait of a drunkard. Double back occasionally in order to elude slave hunters.

p. 113


Follow the North Star.

p. 114

Wagon Wheel

Pack all of the things (fit in a wagon) that would be needed for the journey.

p. 70

Tumbling Boxes

Time to escape.

p. 70


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