Underground Railroad Quilt Goes to School

Sherry O'Neil tells Underground Railroad story through her quilt

Sherry O’Neil tells Underground Railroad story through her quilt

 Grandma Sherry, as she is called by the second graders in the classroom where she volunteers, was delighted by a strange coincidence when she discovered that the class was scheduled to learn about the Underground Railroad.  She had just finished an Underground Railroad Sampler quilt, and as a self-proclaimed “history nut”, was thrilled when she showed the quilt to the teacher and was invited to teach the children about how quilts helped runaway slaves find their way to freedom.

As Sherry spread out the quilt and gathered the children around her, she explained that each quilt block was a coded message.  A quilt would be hung out to air on a clothesline or across a fence post where it could be seen easily and could tell the runaway slaves what to do in order to be safe.  For example, a log cabin quilt made from blocks with a black center indicated a safehouse.  However, if the center of the block was yellow, the message was to proceed and look for a light in the wilderness to guide them.  One little boy noticed the braid pattern in the hand quilted border of Sherry’s quilt and exclaimed, “It’s like their chains!”  The children were excited about the idea of a secret code that helped people and several of the girls asked questions about quiltmaking.

 Sherry made the quilt from Civil War reproduction fabric left over from a Little Women’s Doll Quilt class she taught.  She used the Underground Railroad Sampler book by Eleanor Burns and Sue Bouchard as both a guide in quilt construction and for the historical information she taught.  The book includes instruction for 10 primary code blocks and 5 secondary code blocks, as well as photos and history, with stories about specific events and people.

Sherry has made quilts since the ’80’s.  She prefers hand quilting and hand applique, but has a broad background of quilting experience.  And she’s passionate about teaching quilting, “Quilting is not just a hobby.  It’s a craft to be paid forward.  And every quilt has a story.  It has memories attached to it.”

Sherry’s Underground Railroad Sampler currently hangs over the doorway to the classroom, symbolic of the many stories of people who lived that experience.  But now, Sherry has added another story– the story of a special day when children learned that important history through a beautiful quilt.  My guess is that they will remember the quilt and the history lesson for a very long time.  Congratulations, Sherry!

Underground Railroad Quilt

Underground Railroad Quilt by Sherry O’Neil




















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