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Quilts’ Codes, Songs Led to Freedom

Storyteller Michelle Washington Wilson speaks during an all-ages program at Ocean City's public library Feb. 12.

By Camille Sailer

OCEAN CITY – This resort’s public library commemorated Black History Month Feb. 12, with an all-ages program about how African-American slaves communicated among themselves, risking serious punishment and even death in seeking their freedom.
Invited self-described “storyteller” Michelle Washington Wilson opened the program with a haunting few lines of the song, “Follow the gourd, follow the gourd, for the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom, if you follow the gourd.”
According to Wilson, slaves frequently used song lyrics such as these to follow the safest route as they undertook the highly dangerous journey from the south to the north where they could be sheltered and eventually free persons. In the case of Wilson’s opening song, the “drinking gourd” signifies the Big Dipper and the “old man” is the boat skipper transporting fugitive slaves across river or stream water to evade pursuing bloodhounds.
“These ‘code songs’ were actually like singing telegrams from one group of slaves to another on different plantations and could be used without the master having any knowledge of what was going on. Along with songs and even bird calls, quilts have been traditionally thought of as graphic ‘roadmaps’ for slaves on their journey to freedom,” she continued.
Wilson noted that while no quilts as maps have been preserved since those treacherous times, most do not consider them to be just myth. “Strong cleaning solutions using lye would have been used on the quilts which were made out of rags anyway, so it’s easy to see why none have survived,” she explained.
While the worst that could happen to a slave was to be sent further south to plantations that grew cotton, sugar and tobacco, which were truly back-breaking, dawn-to-dusk endeavors for the slaves, Maryland and even New Jersey still represented significant hardships for these African Americans living out their lives of abject servitude.
New Jersey was the last state to abolish slavery among the northern states, in 1804. Through a process of gradual emancipation, some slaves were held in the state until 1865.
“The first slaves, listed as ‘indentured servants,’ arrived in 1619 to Virginia. By 1838, the famous Underground Railroad was up and running; this was not an actual railroad as some might believe, but a series of safe houses where fugitives would be helped by ‘conductors’ led by the codes represented in these quilts, songs and even first-hand knowledge spread by coachmen who had access to life beyond the plantation, as they drove their masters’ carriages throughout the region,” said Wilson.
One of the most famous conductors was the indomitable Harriet Tubman whose connection to Cape May County is well-documented, as she worked in a number of Cape May hotels as a cook around 1849-1851 to earn money to bring dozens of her family members and friends out of the south to freedom in upstate New York and Canada.
A hub of activity, which developed for arriving fugitive slaves from Maryland as they crossed the Delaware Bay, was Springton/Greenwich in Cumberland County. Awaiting them there were African-American freedmen, Quakers and Native Americans such as the Leni Lenape who assisted the fugitives.
Most of the fugitives were often terrified from their often months-long journey at night through snake-infested swamps, marshes and forests. Most were always just one step ahead of bounty hunters and had been hidden in terrible conditions such as under floorboards for days at a time in stifling heat or frigid cold.
“The leap of faith these slaves undertook to seek their freedom is truly remarkable. But with their faith coupled with enormous courage many were able to escape their enslaved lives; quilts then and now are great symbols of their journey,” concluded Wilson.
To contact Camille Sailer, email csailer@cmcherald.com.

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