African American Freedom Quilts of the Slavery Era

Construct paper quilt using symbolic shapes cut from colored paper.

Teaching artist: Jesse Joshua Watson
Grade: Adaptable


Target learning: Creates symbolic shapes based on the symbols used in traditional African American Freedom Quilts.

Criteria: Draws and cuts out shapes in paper which represent an idea but that are still simple designs.

Target learning: : Creates a paper quilt that carries symbolic meaning of something relating to each student.

Criteria:  Organizes and glues symbolic shapes onto paper using composition elements, including balance, symmetry/asymmetry and white space.

Target learning: : Relates to the historical event of Slavery by following a tradition of the era.

Criteria: Learns and describes some of the traditional meanings for symbols found on actual Freedom Quilts.

Vocabulary (click here for the glossary)

folk art
warm/cool color
white space


Follow the Drinking Gourd, (traditional song) Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott, Putnam Juvenile, 2005. Available used on Amazon from $6.97

Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson with illustrations by James Ransome, Knopf, 1993. Available used on Amazon for $0.24

Underground Railroad Story Quilt (link)


pencils, erasers, scissors, construction paper, glue, paper towels













Freedom Quilt


Resources introduced and creative process


Study history and culture of African Americans during the Slavery Era as part of social studies. Images of Freedom Quilts and picture books about the quilts are provided as study resources by teachers and teaching artist. Students create a paper quilt using symbolic shapes drawn, cut out and glues down based on the African American Freedom Quilts.

Teaching artist:

Discusses slavery and the Abolitionists who helped slaves escape. Shows examples of Freedom Quilts used by slaves to find their way to the North, and reviews their symbolic shapes and their meanings. Teaching Artist gives examples of symbols and helps class invent their own symbols by sharing the potent combination of visual symbolism (quilts) and the hidden messages in the songs that were common at that time. Cites examples of the “Negro Spirituals” and the double meanings of the biblical terminology in them

Promised land = Canada
Egypt = the South
Jordan River = Mississippi and Ohio Rivers
Drinking Gourd = The North Star

Also describes the “Drunkard’s Path” symbol and it’s meaning, then shows a photo of a quilt with this pattern and asks students what they would do if they were runaway slaves and saw this quilt. Encourages students to combine warm and cool colors to give their symbols more aesthetic appeal. Students draw and cut out new symbols then glue them down in patterns to create their own quilt.

Demonstrates drawing a shape that is simple enough to cut out with scissors and how to glue it down without flooding paper with too much glue. Also demonstrates placement and layout of symbols, teaching students about pattern and white space. Asks students to check their layouts for clarity: specifically avoiding too much clutter, which may weaken the layout.


Students are encouraged to guess the meaning of each other’s symbols as a way of helping them critique their work. Students share their own quilt story with the class.

Check for:

Simple shapes for symbols unique to self
Organization of shapes in patterns, balancing shapes and white space
Understanding of historical context
Ability of students to explain their symbols

Essential learnings

Arts 1.1 concepts: shape, pattern, color

Arts 1.2 skills and techniques: drawing and cutting shapes

Arts 1.3 applies arts styles from cultures: African American folk art

Arts 3.2 communicate specific purpose: symbols as direction, warning and encouragement

Arts 4.4 attributes of art from a specific culture: using techniques and form of the quilt from African American culture during the Slavery era