"Historians Gone Wild" on Oprahbulations

I think that this NY Times story by Noam Cohen, titled “In Douglass Tribute, Slave Folklore and Fact Collide,” is just fascinating. It’s an old story (from early 2007), but I was pointed to it this morning.

At the northwest corner of Central Park, construction is under way on Frederick Douglass Circle, a $15.5 million project honoring the escaped slave who became a world-renowned orator and abolitionist.
Beneath an eight-foot-tall sculpture of Douglass, the plans call for a huge quilt in granite, an array of squares, a symbol in each, supposedly part of a secret code sewn into family quilts and used along the Underground Railroad to aid slaves. Two plaques would explain this.
The only problem: According to many prominent historians, the secret code the subject of a popular book that has been featured on no less a cultural touchstone than The Oprah Winfrey Show never existed. And now the city is reconsidering the inclusion of the plaques, so as not to publicize spurious history, Kate D. Levin, the citys commissioner of cultural affairs, said yesterday.

Read the story if you’re interested. I really have no opinion, other than to point out that Oprah’s programs have often promoted pseudoscience and myths. In this case, the story comes from a 1999 book, Hidden in Plain View. According to Cohen’s article, the authors do not currently claim that the secret codes really existed at the time of the Underground Railroad or were widespread; they say that this was one family’s story.

What I think is interesting is that the story has developed such a following among educators and otherwise knowledgeable people:

There are currently 207,000 copies in print, she said. The codes are frequently taught in elementary schools (teachers have been eager to take up the quilting-codes theory because of its useful pedagogic elements a secret code, artwork and a story of triumph), and the patterns represent a small industry within quiltmaking.

I suppose many historians find this maddening – sure, there’s no documentary evidence, a believer would say, because the codes were secret! But then, that’s the defense for most conspiracy theories, from UFOs to the Illuminati.

Oprah aired the story along with the Jefferson DNA descendants, in the news at the same time:

On Ms. Winfreys show, Dr. Dobard appeared with the black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. That relationship was preserved in oral history across the centuries, even as historians of the past generally dismissed the claim. DNA tests published in 1998 are considered to have confirmed Jeffersons paternity.

So, Oprah helped make an anthropology link for me to hang the story on. A family story, doubted by the historical establishment, yet proved with DNA. Well, maybe at least – in the DNA case, there are other paternal Jefferson relatives who might have been the ancestor.

No doubt a good historian could test this hypothesis too. I would look at the question as an opportunity to study a lot of interesting quilts and other folk art. Do a phylogenetic analysis on elements included in early quilts. Few of these will date to the pre-Emancipation period, but if the elements of the story – a star, zig-zags, monkey-wrenches – were sufficiently common and co-associated in later quilts, say, from the 1930’s, it would be an argument in favor of the widespread existence of the pattern at an earlier time.