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Reading Between the Lines to Freedom

For 19th century slaves in America, a hand-stitched quilt was more than just bedding; it was a map to freedom. As Black History Month kicked off at the Molokai Public Library last Wednesday, Molokai resident John Wordin shared the little-known story of the secret role quilts played in bringing enslaved African Americans to safety.

Wordin’s presentation was inspired by the book “Hidden in Plain View,” which details the history of the system of coded quilts.

“Slaves were deliberately kept from getting any education. They were illiterate,” said Wordin. “You couldn’t just give them a handout and say, ‘Well, these are directions as to where to go and who to talk to.’”

Instead, instructions were secretly stitched into shapes on quilts and hung in the windows of homes that formed the Underground Railroad, the covert network of routes leading to the free North. A certain shape of a certain color could point escaping slaves on the right path. Patterns were passed around and learned by slaves. Wordin brought a replica quilt that uses a design known as Jacob’s Ladder. The rungs of the ladder, he said, could indicate how many miles slaves needed to travel to the next safe location.

“It was subtle thing but to someone who was looking for a specific direction, this gave them [that] direction,” said Wordin.

Quilts weren’t the only things hiding secrets in those days. Slaves also used music to disguise their plans of escape. What seemed to be spirituals and perfectly acceptable to the masters, said Wordin, actually included instructions on journeying to freedom.

Resident Kehau Briones, who attended the program, said that she’s interested in African American history and culture because of the people she’s met in her own life.

“It’s horrible to hear the things that happened to them and the back history of … their life,” said Briones. “And [racism] is still happening today.”

Briones said that while she doesn’t equate the struggles of African American slaves to the injustices suffered by Native Hawaiians, she sees similarities between two cultures who know what it means to lose land and freedom.

The program, organized by local ceramics artist Yoellah Yuhudah, will continue at the library every Wednesday from 1 to 2 p.m. for the rest of the month. On Feb. 11, Yuhudah will speak about the African immigrants’ search for identity in Hawaii. Sandra Watford is the speaker for Feb. 18, and Susan Macuse will present the final program on Feb. 25. For more information or to get involved, contact Yuhudah at 276-0086 or at mauiglassbeadsyo@gmail.com.

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