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Quilts give road map for the Underground Railroad

If Ozella McDaniel Williams had been living in her ancestral home in Africa, she would have been the griot, the storyteller who committed to memory the history of the tribe and then passed it on to the younger members. In 1994 she was sitting in the midst of beautiful handmade quilts in the Old Market Building of Charleston, S.C., telling historian Jacqueline Tobin to "write this down."

Ozella Williams had a story to tell, one that had been passed from generation to generation. She no sooner began than she stopped, telling the historian that more details would be learned when Williams was "ready." Over the next few years, as the story unfolded, Tobin contacted Raymond Dobard, an art history professor and well-known African American quilter, to help unravel a mystery that revealed the secret.

Based on Williams' story, Tobin and Dobard co-authored a book, the title of which is self-descriptive  "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad."

To learn about and decipher the Underground Railroad quilt code, the authors had to delve into African history to learn the cultures and the oral traditions of various tribes and about quilt making in America. They met with many African American quilt makers and historians, some of whom had published their own stories.

Such research was necessary before Tobin and Dobard could focus on the quilts made by slaves who used them as a means of secret communication. In addition to the fabric color and the patterns of a quilt, the knots and stitching used in assembling a quilt had meanings.

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