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Slave quilts on display at WVSU

Chip Ellis
The Underground Railroad Secret Quilt Code Exhibit on display at West Virginia State University shows how 19th-century slaves used textiles to communicate their goals of freedom.
Chip Ellis
The exhibit has been preserved by a family of West Virginia State University alumni and will be on display at the school through Saturday.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Teresa Kemp is traveling the country to share centuries of her family's secrets in the hope of encouraging others to preserve their own family heirlooms.But her family's legacy of quilt-making is not just a treasured piece of her past -- it's a piece of America's past.The Underground Railroad Secret Quilt Code Exhibit is on display at West Virginia State University through Saturday and showcases five generations of quilts -- many of which were used as a way of communication for 19th-century slaves.One featured quilt has wheel patterns sewn into the blocks, meant to prepare slaves for travel by identifying necessary tools and food.Another quilt was designed to warn escapees not to travel in a straight line and helped them navigate around dangers."In many places in America, the enslaved people were not allowed to learn to read and write English. Communication was not allowed," Kemp said. "Signs in dirt, on trees, in quilts and songs could be used to communicate. There was no text messaging, like there is today -- they used a language of textiles."Although the traveling exhibit has been all over the country and will return to its home at Plantation Quilts & Gifts in Atlanta next week, the showcase at WVSU is extra special to the Kemps.Kemp and nearly 30 of her family members are WVSU alumni -- including her father, Howard Wilson, former president of the university's National Alumni Association.
"It's sort of like home for me," said Wilson, who lives in Ohio.Kemp has spent her life studying, documenting and preserving her family's history and hopes the traveling quilt exhibit will encourage other families to recognize their history's worth."Take pictures of the things you have of your ancestors. Write down as much as you can remember about the person it came from. Care for passed-down treasures in the right way -- don't throw them in plastic bags," she said. "A lot of families have priceless quilts and don't even realize it and sleep in them and destroy them. They will find that, when they look closely, each piece of fabric was a day in the life of that person and has meaning. Nothing was wasted, and everything was recycled by my family."The quilt exhibit also is used to promote outreach programs and not only educates communities on past transgressions, but on present violations of human rights."By educating people on the ways of the past, we are able to change the future through science, technology and environmental awareness," she said. "We are facilitating safe dialogue between people that will heal communities of racism and hatred. We are able to heal communities and educate and inspire future generations of historians and preservationists."The Underground Railroad Secret Quilt Code Exhibit is on display at WVSU's Della Brown Taylor Art Gallery in the Davis Fine Arts Building from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.For more information, visit
Reach Mackenzie Mays at or 304-348-5100.
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