Prof. debunks Douglass myth

A granite quilt, a small plaque and one woman’s story have suddenly come under fire in New York City, thanks in part to Yale Civil War historian David Blight.

After hearing of the city of New York’s plans to construct the $15 million Frederick Douglass Circle in the northwest corner of Central Park, Blight voiced concerns about the historical accuracy and relevance of the memorial’s centerpiece, a granite replica of a quilt that a nearby plaque says was used as a means of covert communication for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad.

A Frederick Douglass memorial being constructed in New York City has lately come under fire by a Yale history professor who claims it is historically inaccurate.
A Frederick Douglass memorial being constructed in New York City has lately come under fire by a Yale history professor who claims it is historically inaccurate.

“I simply object to associating Frederick Douglass in a major public memorial with such a legend,” Blight wrote in an e-mail. “Frederick Douglass never saw, nor did he even hear of, a quilt used to signal a runaway slave like himself, on his or her desperate journey to freedom.”

The quilt’s meteoric rise to fame began when “Hidden in Plain View,” a book describing the role quilts may have played as a means of communication for escaping slaves, was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” a year before the book’s 1999 release. The authors, Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, interviewed a schoolteacher, Ozella McDaniel Williams, who described a code her family sewed into textiles to instruct escaping slaves. Algernon Miller, who designed the memorial, told the New York Times that Williams’s story directly inspired his design.

Like Miller, many schoolteachers, readers and amateur historians quickly accepted Williams’s account, but professional historians have been less easily convinced. Blight’s comments on the monument have sparked a national debate over what to do about the memorial plans and what role historical accuracy plays in people’s understanding of the past.

The controversy begins, ironically enough, with another Yale professor, art historian Robert Farris Thompson ’55 GRD ’65. Maude Wahlman GRD ’80, a folk art expert at the University of Central Florida and one of Thompson’s former students, said Thompson’s work on African art spawned a wave of investigation into the coded communication in folk art symbols.

“[Thompson] was one of the first to hypothesize about the connection of symbols in African art and African-American art,” she said.

Wahlman, who wrote a foreword to “Hidden in Plain View,” said she thinks the claim that African-American folk art served a communicative function is highly probable given similar uses in countries around the world. But because the symbolic nature of these communicative pieces is extremely secretive, uncovering the meanings has been a slow process.

“There’s a tradition in Africa where coding things is controlled by secret societies,” she said. “If you want to learn the deeper meaning of symbols, then you need to show worthiness of knowing these deeper meanings by not telling anyone.”

Now the field of study launched by one Yale professor has piqued the criticism of another — Blight. Caught in the middle is the memorial itself and its two small plaques, which originally presented the quilt story as widely accepted history.

Many folk art experts and historians, including Blight, who wrote a book about Douglass’ life, doubt the account on which the memorial is based. Kimberly Wulfert, a quilt historian based in California, said she shares Blight’s skepticism. Wulfert said she was the first to question publicly the story told in “Hidden in Plain View.”

“Neither credible nor multiple sources of information to support the individual’s story were offered in this book,” she said. “I was certain that it was a joke, a work of fiction, and I didn’t bother to give it another thought. The quilt study group I was in talked about it and came to the same conclusion.”

Because of the national attention the controversy has received in recent days, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs plans to rewrite the plaques, but it will still go ahead with construction of the granite quilt, scheduled to be completed in fall 2008, said Sara Rutkowski, the department’s director of public affairs. The original plaques were to contain text that cited “Hidden in Plain View” as historical fact, and Rutkowski said the department does not yet know how they will revise them.

This recent controversy is not the first time an Oprah-related book has come under fire for accuracy. In October 2005, James Frey was assailed for having promoted “A Million Little Pieces” as a memoir when in fact most of its stories were fiction. The questions surrounding “Hidden in Plain View” do not suggest similarly sinister intentions, but critics think the account is either a mistake or, at best, a story that is largely irrelevant to the life of Frederick Douglass.

But Wahlman and the authors insist their reporting was thorough. Wahlman said after their initial reporting of Williams’s system of symbols, many other descendants of former slaves have stepped forward to describe similar practices. Nevertheless, she understands that the revisions to the plaques are necessary, especially given their indirect relation to Douglass.

“For one thing, it was a hypothesis,” Wahlman said. “It was the promotion for the book that sort of blew it out of proportion. It was just one person’s family tradition. If I speak somewhere or Jacqueline [Tobin] speaks somewhere, someone comes up and says, ‘My family had this or something like it.’ ”

Much like “A Million Little Pieces,” this story also raises questions of what importance absolute truth has if small inaccuracies can move people emotionally.

Teachers in elementary schools and elsewhere have latched on to Williams’ story to help students engage in the history of the Underground Railroad. The visual nature of the story helps children relate to it, Wahlman said.

“The [Underground Railroad] was run as much by African Americans as it was by Anglo-Americans … and I think that is one of the reasons of the appeal,” Wahlman said. “It appealed to a lot of people that they were partly responsible for their own freedom and their own intellectual ways, and they weren’t just dependent on other people.”

But Blight said a line must be drawn between fiction and truth when designing this memorial. Douglass may never again be honored with a memorial of this size, he said, and it should be as accurate as possible.

“At some point the real stories of fugitive slave escape, as well as the much larger story of those slaves who never could escape, must take over as a teaching priority,” he said. “It ought to be rooted in real and important aspects of his life and thought, not a piece of folklore largely invented in the 1990s which only reinforces a soft, happier version of the history of slavery that distracts us from facing harsher truths and a more compelling past.”

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