The slave quilt code fracas

In the nearly 10 years that Civil War Book News has been running (it's being revamped as you read this), one book has towered over all others in sales. That book is Hidden in Plain View, a sui generis work conveying to the public the claims of a specific woman about her family history and heritage.

The story includes a quilting communication code described by a certain Ms. Williams of South Carolina, who characterized it as passed down from slavery times. The code contains escape information and is coherent, specific and detailed enough to be analyzable. Indeed, the NSA actually had an exhibit based on the data:
... 17 patterns are thought to have been used in the secret slave quilt codes. They ranged from patterns relating advice, such as the Flying Geese, to others that sent direct messages. The slaves memorized a poem that listed each of the different patterns.
The presentation of this information is literary and resembles the wonderful anthropological work of Richard and Sally Price during the 1990s. This is what you do with a single source of information.

The authors of Hidden in Plain View thus delivered to historians a starting point for some potentially very interesting research. But all I see around me is historians behaving badly.

My first clue appeared in Kevin Levin's blog - Kevin says he knows nothing about the matter but characterizes the underlying material as "myth" and "nonsense"apparently on the strength of postings made by Ralph Luker. Looking up Kevin's link to Luker I see one post tangentially addressing the matter. The strongest part says,

... the UNLV faculty member, Donovan Conley, ignored the advice of historians, such as David Blight, and allowed his student, Theodore Ransaw, to perpetuate the quilt/code myth in a thesis, "Points of Contact: Nineteenth Century Visual Rhetoric of the Underground Railroad."
This has the makings of a good argument against a lad's thesis but can hardly address the slave quilt coding issue. Consider the underpinnings in this quote: "He's [the student is] discovering an inherent problem with the project: the lack of primary research materials,"

I laughed when I read that.

Hidden in Plain View created a single historical record by documenting what purports to be one family's oral tradition. The monkey was placed on our backs to conduct more interviews and collect additional folklore - not to muck around in archives looking for notarized accounts of secret codes and then petulantly declaring - "No corroboration, must be lies."

A particularly curious post on this matter was put up by Oscar Chamberlain at HNN, worth your notice: "It has a superficial plausibility, unless one knows enough about quilt making to immediately be dubious." No it is deeply plausible because this purported oral tradition is rich in detail. It requires nothing in the way of quilt making knowledge.

This debunker gets close to transacting some real business when writing: "A key phrase in Ozella Williams's Quilt Code is Double Wedding Rings, but that quilt pattern was invented in the 1920s." Good. We're getting somewhere. But to complete our job we need to doublecheck our belief that it dates from the 1920s while keeping in mind that 100-year-old oral traditions will accrete neologisms and other asynchronous material.

The main problem comes down to failure in historical research following up Hidden in Plain View. And that is not the authors' problem. I note that many more purported oral traditions have turned up since but that they fail to correlate exactly to the code in Hidden and that this is held up by historians as a case against slave coding in quilts. How absurd.

The most comprehensive critical recap of the literature appears here. Notice that stories are still being told. Data is being collected. The only sensible debunking possible is claim-by-claim based on the internal integrity of the material. Meanwhile if you correlate different oral traditions and get differences, this only challenges the idea of a universal coding scheme not multiple or parallel traditions.

At the very least, apart from any code itself, you have as basis for study the question of whether there is an oral tradition for the existence of slave quilt coding.

The safest thing one can say is that not enough material has been collected and therefore that its historical interpretation is premature.

It may even be possible that people volunteering coding legends are false memory cases like alien abductees... but that has to be tested one storyteller at a time.

What on earth must anthropolgists think, looking at this display of history-as-social-science, I wonder.