Museum dinner speaker spins tale about underground railroad days
Playing runaway slave Peter Paul Johnson, W.T. Johnson points to a bear paw pattern on a quilt that told his character to follow bear tracks to safety.
The Seton Center in Louisiana was packed on Thursday, Nov. 14 for the Louisiana Area Historical Museum annual fall dinner, which featured a presentation about the underground railroad.
Performance artist W.T. Johnson played the fictional character of “Peter Paul Johnson,” based on runaway slaves who made their way north to Canada for freedom.
Johnson is an assistant principal at Veterans Elementary School in Hannibal, and has portrayed historical characters at Missouri gatherings since 2001.
Using period dialect, Johnson portrayed Peter Paul Johnson’s journey with the aid of a quilt. Some historians claim that quilt blocks were used in the underground railroad as code to runaway slaves, Johnson said.
The quilt tale is disputed by some, “doubted and not documented,” Johnson said. But he still uses the quilt code tale to unfold his character’s journey.
Peter Paul Johnson initially saw a wagon wheel on a quilt at his master’s residence, Johnson said.
Shortly thereafter, “the mostly manly woman I’ve ever seen,” arrived at his plantation on a wagon. She was coming to free him.
That evening, the woman came to his residence and led him to the wagon. Once there, he was placed in a compartment that resembled a coffin that was nailed shut to hid him.
After a long journey, the woman pried the compartment open and took Peter Paul Johnson to a barn.
While there, he saw another quilt with a bear paw block. That was a sign to “follow the bear tracks,” because it meant there would be shelter, water and food along the way.
The character makes it to another stop, where he saw a quilt block with a crossroads on it. That represented a community where people could help, and a log cabin block indicated there was a safe house in the area.
Those who harbored fleeing slaves were in great danger themselves, Johnson said.
“They could get punished and lose all their property.”
Along the way, Peter Paul Johnson looked for other quilt blocks as signs.
A shoo fly block meant there were people in the area who would provide new clothes. Flying geese indicated that a runaway slave needed to always move north.
The final quilt block found by Peter Paul Johnson and others was a sailboat, which meant he was about to get safe passage into Canada.
“That’s the story, the myth and the legend,” Johnson said. “It was a long hard journey.
“A slave owner could always take you back,” if the runaway slave was captured, and many were.
“They couldn’t have done it without the help of others,” Johnson said, including many Caucasian slavery abolitionists who were sympathetic to their quest for freedom.
“An organized movement made it easier. They had a burning desire that people be free,” Johnson said.
At the end of his performance, Johnson received a standing ovation.
Prior to Johnson’s performance, the “Just Strings” quartet played. Performers in the group included Dr. Bob Glass and Katie Schisler on violins, with Ashley Ayers and Joanna Brock both playing cello.
Museum board member Dorothy Webb also paid tribute to the volunteers who keep the facility alive.
“You can have a good store but if you don’t have good people to take care of it, you don’t profit,” Webb said.