Giles R. Wright Jr., renowned scholar of African American history, dies at 73

Historians in the News

About a decade ago, imaginations were captured by a tale of African-Americans weaving secret codes into quilt patterns in the 1800s to pass on clues and directions to runaway slaves in their perilous journey to freedom.

Previously considered folklore and once the basis for a children's fiction book, many people began to believe it was fact after the 1999 publication of "Hidden in Plain View," a non-fiction book embraced by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. In it, a South Carolina woman told the authors her family had an oral history, passed down through generations, about her ancestors weaving codes into quilts.

It was an endearing and inspiring tale, yet Giles R. Wright Jr. was skeptical.

While educators eagerly began teaching it as fact and some museums dedicated displays to quilt recreations, the renowned New Jersey historian publicly demanded evidence. Where, he asked, were remnants of the quilts, corroborating historical records and documentation of other family oral histories?

"Some black quilters have accused me of denying our heritage. I'm trying to protect it," Mr. Wright told The Star-Ledger in an interview three years ago, just before his once-controversial conclusions became embraced by most historians.

Experts said no proof of the quilt codes has ever been substantiated.

Mr. Wright, 73, died yesterday at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mt. Holly. He had been director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission from its inception in 1979 until he retired last year after suffering a stroke.

Clement A. Price, a friend and Rutgers University history professor who worked closely with Wright on several projects, said he never fully recovered.

Marc Mappen, executive director of the state Historical Commission, said Mr. Wright, who lived in Willingboro with his wife, Marjorie, was nationally known for documenting black history, and particularly for his expertise on African-Americans in New Jersey and the Underground Railroad....
Read entire article at Newark Star-Ledger

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