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Unfolding the Past

Students learn about the Underground Railroad from a quilt on loan to Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy.

Inside the geometric patterns and stitched designs of a quilt in the library of Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, students contemplated the Underground Railroad — a 19th-century network of clandestine routes that helped Southern slaves escape to freedom in the North. Their eyes darted from one end of the fabric to the other as librarian Ruby Osia asked the students about a water motif in one of the squares.

“Sometimes the slave boys and girls would walk in the water,” she said. “Whey do you think they did that?”

“I know,” said third-grade student Savannah Jelks, as her hand darted toward the sky.

Osia motioned toward her.

“To clear their scent,” she said. “So the dogs wouldn’t be able to follow them.”

“Yes,” said Osia with the warmth of a woman who has been educating children for many years.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD quilt was created by the Culpepper Quilt Guild to raise money for the Culpepper Minority Task Force scholarship fund. Inspired by the book “Hidden in Plain View” by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, the quilting group wanted to use the symbolism of the antebellum era to improve test scores for minority children in Culpepper.

“Each person in the group chose a square and made it,” said Monique Moody, a member of the quilt guild and director of community outreach for the task force. “Quilters love to quilt, and they’ll take any reason for quilting. It’s like painting on fabric.”

The group starred creating the quilt in November and finished in January. It made its public debut at the Martin Luther King holiday at Antioch Baptist Church in Culpepper. Like the Underground Railroad itself, word of the quilt quickly spread. When Moody’s friend Sheila Sinclair found out about it, she instantly though about the children at Lyles-Crouch.

“I asked if she would bring it up and let the school display it in the library,” said Sinclair, who is a volunteer at the school’s library “The children are fascinated by it.”

THE LANGUAGE of the quilt uses shapes and patterns to display a variety of meanings that were, as the book points out, hidden in plain view. Homes along the routes used by escaping slaves would display them on clotheslines as a kind of concealed conversation. A bow tie pattern indicated that clothes would be available; a basket meant that refugees could find food; Jacob’s Ladder indicated that shelter was available.

“This is a sampler, so it has 15 different patterns,” said Moody. “A typical quilt from that era would have had one pattern and one meaning.”

Since it was finished last month, the quilt has taken on a life of its own and is now touring through the state. After it left the elementary school last week, it was installed at the Culpepper Library. In March it will be displayed at the Culpepper Museum. In May, the quilt will travel to the Arts Center in Orange. After that, it will return to Culpepper where it will be raffled during the city’s Juneteenth celebration to raise money for minority scholarships.

“This quilt is so amazing,” said Sinclair as she examined it in the school’s library. “And the best part about this is that the kids look at the quilt, and it’s very real for them. They look at this and they get it.”