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Local resident discusses Underground Railroad Quilt Codes at HCC

Warrenton resident Portia Hawes presented, “Quilts of the Underground Railroad,” at Halifax Community College on Feb. 26 as part of Black History Month events.


“The Underground Railroad was a major feature in the freeing of the slaves and the moving of the slaves from the south to the north,” explained Hawes. “There had to be an organized method and procedure that was used to move the slaves from south to north.” There were no railroad tracks or stations or horns, said Hawes. She credited Harriet Tubman as being the “main conductor” of the Underground Railroad.


Hawes added that the Underground Railroad had a special code disguised in quilt patterns. With the aid of a quilt that featured the patterns, she described the different codes such as the monkey wrench, which meant to prepare the tools needed for a long journey, and the wagon wheel, which meant to load the wagon or prepare to board the wagon to escape. There were 10 patterns in all. She also suggested reading “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad” by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard.


The art of quilting was also discussed and Hawes talked about not only the Underground Railroad quilt, but also two other quilts that she brought along for the event including “Vision in Black & White” and a themed quilt, “Peace around the World.” Hawes’ quilts have been exhibited in several shows and she explained that all of her quilts are handmade—some have machine stitching and some are hand-stitched.


“The first square I ever made, I was about seven years old,” said Hawes, who made quilts for her dolls when she was a child. She picked up the skill from watching her mother. She is currently part of the Heritage Quilters group.


A retired educator, Hawes spent more than 32 years in the field, ranging from elementary education to high school, special education, and adult education.  She began her career as a teacher at the Hanover School for Boys in Hanover, Va. She has also taught at Lawson Elementary School in Owenton, Va., the Janie Porter Barrett School for Girls in Hanover, Va., and Hauppage Schools in Hauppage, N.Y. She also worked for five years as a costumer, designer and production coordinator for the Usdan Theater Arts Center in Wheatley Heights, N.Y. From 2007 - 2008, she served as interim director for the Warren County Senior Center.


Hawes studied Home Economics Education at New York University and Cornell University. She received a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Education at St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., and has taken advanced studies at Virginia State College in Petersburg, Va.


Portia Hawes presented “Quilts of the Underground Railroad” at HCC on Feb. 26.