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Secrets of Underground Railroad Revealed in Unassuming Quilt in Beverly

By Howard Ludwig | February 15, 2016 5:26am
 Dorothy Straughter's quilt is on display at The Quilter's Trunk in Beverly. The 20 panels are all subtle clues that supporters of the Underground Railroad may have used to provide clues to escaped slaves about dangers ahead or strategies for their journey to freedom.
Dorothy Straughter's quilt is on display at The Quilter's Trunk in Beverly. The 20 panels are all subtle clues that supporters of the Underground Railroad may have used to provide clues to escaped slaves about dangers ahead or strategies for their journey to freedom.
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DNAinfo/Howard A. Ludwig

BEVERLY — Dorothy Straughter's quilt features 20 panels that, to the untrained eye, look simply decorative. But to slaves escaping the antebellum South, these patterns may have offered subtle clues along the path of the Underground Railroad.

Straughter's quilt is on display at The Quilter's Trunk in Beverly. It was hung on Feb. 3 along with a guide explaining many of the hidden symbols in celebration of Black History Month, said Katie Nathwani, who owns the store at 10352 S. Western Ave.

It took Straughter three weeks to complete the detailed quilt, based off extensive research, that also depicts the transatlantic slave trade from Africa to America on the back. The idea came from a neighbor in Beverly who had made a similar quilt, and it was completed in January 2015.

 Nik-ki Whittingham of Hyde Park works at the Quilter's Trunk in Beverly. Whittingham's quilt is a tribute to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. It features a photograph she took of Davis in 1983 and is on display for Black History Month.
Nik-ki Whittingham of Hyde Park works at the Quilter's Trunk in Beverly. Whittingham's quilt is a tribute to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. It features a photograph she took of Davis in 1983 and is on display for Black History Month.
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DNAinfo/Howard A. Ludwig

"I said something is wrong here if I don't know this part of our history," said Straughter, who grew up near St. Sabina Parish in Auburn Gresham.

She began researching the Underground Railroad, including reading Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard's book, "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad."

The book tells the story of Ozella McDaniel Williams, a quilt maker who revealed a dozen patterns that she claimed were used to aid fugitive slaves on their journey to freedom. There's some debate about the actual use of such quilts, but Straughter said the story inspired her to create her own Underground Railroad quilt.

Straughter's tapestry includes symbols such as a rising sun that she said told slaves to leave in the spring. A bow tie pattern advises runaways to dress to fit their surroundings and that clothes were available nearby. A drunken path pattern suggests fugitives take a zigzag course, Straughter explained.

Straughter, a pediatric occupational therapist, pictures quilts featuring such patterns hanging unassumingly in windows or left on a clotheslines along the unmarked path of the Underground Railroad. She added that this is just the third quilt she'd ever made.

"History is becoming so rich for me now," Straughter said. "This is something that nobody wants to talk about."

Also on display in the store for Black History Month is Nik-ki Whittingham's quilt that pays tribute to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Whittingham landed a job at The Quilter's Trunk upon her retirement from the Cook County Public Defender's Office.

But years before working in the court system, Whittingham worked as a photographer for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. It was while working for the Grammy-issuing group that she was asked to photograph the 1983 Kool Jazz Festival in Chicago.

Whittingham was on stage for a concert featuring Davis and snapped a picture of him peering over his sunglasses while playing his horn and walking towards her. The photographer applied the photo to cloth and incorporated it in a kaleidoscope pattern at the center of her quilt as well as in all four corners.

Whittingham, a Hyde Park resident, brought her Miles Davis quilt to her job interview with Nathwani just ahead of the grand opening of The Quilter's Trunk. She shared the story of her quilt and in doing so immediately secured a position at the store.

"All quilts have a story," Nathwani said.

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