21 May 2007

So Who Knows? The Easy Way to Teach History

I was checking into the myth of Underground Railroad quilts when I came on this quote about history:

But women like Anna Lopez, the education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum, see no reason why the story of quilt codes can't be fact. "What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?"

There is no doubt that it can be significantly more difficult to research women's history, especially black women's history, than the more traditional history we usually read. But this quote, from someone who has some influence on how children will interpret the history they see in the Plymouth Historical Museum, seems dangerously close to advocating making up, or at least not worrying about, the details of history. This does women's history and black history a huge disservice and teaches children that written records are the only reliable source of historical research.

If you're writing about history, you've got to be able to verify your stories to be credible, especially if your stories are far-fetched. The burden of proof is on the historians promoting the stories. I'll write more about the Underground Railroad quilts later on.


  1. What is the myth of the underground railroad quilts? That they contained coded messages of some kind? Tell us what the theory is that you're checking. This sounds very interesting.

    I agree that just making it up is a bad idea for teaching history. =)

  2. It's a pretty commonly taught idea in public schools that people used quilts as signals along the silk road. The stories have been around for decades, but there is really no evidence that quilts were ever used that way. But it makes a great story. I really will write more about it soon.

  3. I was so disappointed when I looked into quilts being used as underground railroad markers, and the story could not be backed up.