CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Teresa Kemp is traveling the country to share centuries of her family's secrets in the hope of encouraging others to preserve their own family heirlooms.
But her family's legacy of quilt-making is not just a treasured piece of her past — it's a piece of America's past.
The Underground Railroad Secret Quilt Code Exhibit is on display at West Virginia State University through Saturday and showcases five generations of quilts — many of which were used as a way of communication for 19th-century slaves.
One featured quilt has wheel patterns sewn into the blocks, meant to prepare slaves for travel by identifying necessary tools and food.
Another quilt was designed to warn escapees not to travel in a straight line and helped them navigate around dangers.
"In many places in America, the enslaved people were not allowed to learn to read and write English. Communication was not allowed," Kemp said. "Signs in dirt, on trees, in quilts and songs could be used to communicate. There was no text messaging, like there is today — they used a language of textiles."
Although the traveling exhibit has been all over the country and will return to its home at Plantation Quilts & Gifts in Atlanta next week, the showcase at WVSU is extra special to the Kemps.
Kemp and nearly 30 of her family members are WVSU alumni — including her father, Howard Wilson, former president of the university's National Alumni Association.