David Blight: Prof. debunks Douglass myth

Historians in the News

A granite quilt, a small plaque and one woman’s story have suddenly come under fire in New York City, thanks in part to Yale Civil War historian David Blight.

After hearing of the city of New York’s plans to construct the $15 million Frederick Douglass Circle in the northwest corner of Central Park, Blight voiced concerns about the historical accuracy and relevance of the memorial’s centerpiece, a granite replica of a quilt that a nearby plaque says was used as a means of covert communication for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad.

“I simply object to associating Frederick Douglass in a major public memorial with such a legend,” Blight wrote in an e-mail. “Frederick Douglass never saw, nor did he even hear of, a quilt used to signal a runaway slave like himself, on his or her desperate journey to freedom.”

The quilt’s meteoric rise to fame began when “Hidden in Plain View,” a book describing the role quilts may have played as a means of communication for escaping slaves, was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” a year before the book’s 1999 release. The authors, Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, interviewed a schoolteacher, Ozella McDaniel Williams, who described a code her family sewed into textiles to instruct escaping slaves. Algernon Miller, who designed the memorial, told the New York Times that Williams’s story directly inspired his design.

Like Miller, many schoolteachers, readers and amateur historians quickly accepted Williams’s account, but professional historians have been less easily convinced. Blight’s comments on the monument have sparked a national debate over what to do about the memorial plans and what role historical accuracy plays in people’s understanding of the past....
Read entire article at Yale Daily News

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James S. Harrison - 2/14/2007

I read Hidden in Plain Sight and was quite unimpressed. As a professor of African American History with a particular interest in slavery I was open to the concept (which I had never heard before) of slaves using quilts to escape. The whole idea is replete with errors: logically one must ask how southern slaves became aware of the route to freedom and if so why they did not utilize it. One must also question why, even after slavery ended, there was no report of such a system.

William Still, who headed the Philadelphia Underground Railroad, makes no mention of it in his book about escaping slavery.

It is very dangerous and a-historical to base a book on a single incident that is not documented. It reminded me of the so called "Lynch Letter."

Frederick Douglass is too great a man to be associated with such a tenuous and flimsy conjecture.

I used to live less than two blocks from where the memorial is planned and believe that it is a great idea, however, it should contain valid and veriable history rather than a single unsubstaniated story.

JS Harrison, Portland Community College