The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Chapter 6: North Carolina Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter is preceded by another runaway ad, this time for a 21-year-old called Martha. The narrative then returns to Cora, who believes it has been one day since Sam’s house collapsed, though she isn’t sure. She remains alone, trapped on the underground railroad platform. She tortures herself with thoughts of what has happened to Caesar and Sam and, while sleeping, she has nightmares about a twisted, violent version of her life in South Carolina. Cora is desperately hungry, and she doesn’t know when she will eat again. The train is late, and she is too weak to walk to wherever the next station might be. She curses herself for choosing to stay in South Carolina, thinking it was ludicrous to assume they would be safe there, still in the South and so close to Randall. It is completely dark, but Cora cannot stop having visions of Caesar being captured. She hopes that he was taken with Meg, whom she assumes was his lover, so at least he is not alone. Cora feels like “a stray in every sense… the last of her tribe.”
For the second time, Cora has narrowly evaded capture; however, whereas before she was left with Caesar, she is now completely alone. The image of Cora trapped in the dark on the platform beneath the burned house evokes the symbol of the Phoenix, a mythical bird who rises from the ashes of death. It also emphasizes the connection between death and freedom—Cora doesn’t know when or if the train will come, and for now she is in a death-like state of deprivation and nothingness. Perhaps more torturous than her immediate surroundings, however, is the mystery of what happened to Sam and Caesar. As with Mabel and Lovey, their fate remains a mystery, although Cora knows the likelihood of them surviving is impossibly slim.
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The train speeds into the station, and at first flies past Cora. She screams after it and the conductor stops and backs up. The engineer offers her his sandwich and she gobbles it without realizing he was joking. He is only about 15 and is astonished by Cora’s story. He informs Cora that he has been told to avoid Georgia station because it has been discovered by patrollers. He tells Cora she must ride in the flatcar, where she must hold on to straps and ropes in order to avoid flying off. As they speed along, Cora realizes she has forgotten to ask where they are going.
The fact that the train almost misses her, in combination with the news that the Georgia station has been discovered, further highlights how narrowly Cora has managed to get this far in her journey. Because of this, Cora has become more ruthless about her mission to survive, not stopping to consider whether it would be impolite to take the engineer’s sandwich.
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When they eventually reach the next station, there are still empty cases of explosive powder lying around from where the rock was blasted away. The engineer tells Cora they are in North Carolina, explaining that in the past it was “a popular stop” but it isn’t anymore. He tells her he doesn’t know who the station agent is. Cora asks to go with him, but he tells her he is too young to be in charge of people and thus is only allowed to take care of the trains. He leaves her and Cora wanders around, only to find that she is completely trapped again. She cries herself to sleep until the station agent, Martin Wells, wakes her. He tells Cora that she is not supposed to be there and that it is “regrettable” that she is. Martin had been visiting the platform to inform the railroad that he couldn’t accept any more runaways because of changes to the law in North Carolina. He helps Cora to get into the back of his cart, where she hides under a piece of tarpaulin as before.
Cora’s luck appears to be wearing thin. Although neither the engineer nor Martin Wells are unkind, they are both hesitant to offer the assistance Cora requests. This reluctance highlights the tricky balance that operators of the underground railroad must maintain. Despite the fact that everything they are doing is illegal, agents of the underground railroad must still stick to an internally coherent set of rules, or else they risk the whole operation collapsing altogether. While individual agents may be tempted to bend the rules in order to help one individual, this risks sacrificing the chances of many more runaways—not to mention jeopardizing the agents themselves.
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Martin lifts the tarpaulin and tells Cora that he wants her to see something. It is a long line of rotting corpses that have been mutilated and hanged. Martin explains, “They call this road the Freedom Trail now.” The next time they stop, it is at Martin’s house. On seeing Cora, Martin’s wife, Ethel, tells Martin that he’s going to get them killed. After washing, Cora is ushered up to the attic, which is cramped and hot. Ethel brings Cora food, water, and a chamber pot, and tells her that she must be absolutely quiet. If the servant, Fiona, or any visitors discover Cora’s presence, they will all be murdered. Through a tiny crack in the wall, Cora watches the citizens of the town going about their days. There is a dog that is often fed leftover scraps; in her head, Cora names him Mayor. Martin owns a store, and neither he nor Ethel visit Cora during the day while Fiona is working. Fiona is young and has a strong Irish accent. The Wells’ daughter comes to visit with her family, and from her voice Cora decides she is kind, like Martin.
Cora’s existence in North Carolina mirrors one of the most famous runaway stories in history: The Diary of Anne Frank. Stuck in the attic, Cora must rely on her own imagination to entertain her as she stares out at the townspeople below. The dynamic between Martin and his wife, Ethel, reveals that disagreements over the obligation to fight slavery were hardly as simple as a north/south divide—they cut between individual families and couples. Ethel helps Cora reluctantly, and it seems possible she only does so because if she were to inform the authorities she would likely be killed as an accomplice. Perversely, Ethel is thus pressured into doing the right thing due to her own selfish reasoning.
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In the evenings, people gather to have picnics in the town square. Unlike on Randall or in South Carolina, everyone in this North Carolina town is white. The only black people around are hanging at the end of a rope. A banner is unfurled to reveal the words “Friday Festival.” There is music, a short speech by Judge Tennyson, and a minstrel show. There is then a play about an enslaved man who runs away and is captured. When the man is brought back, he begs to be given his old “position,” but the master explains that North Carolina is different now and the slave is dragged away by patrollers. Next, a real patroller, Jamison, takes to the stage and introduces a young new recruit called Richard, who has already caught a runaway. The girl in question, Louisa, is brought to the stage—she is trembling, covered in blood and dirt, and her head has been shaved. Jamison proclaims that the night riders keep the town safe from black people who will use the darkness of night to do them harm. The patrollers take Louisa to the big oak tree and tie the noose around her neck. A woman in a pink polka-dot dress rushes at the chance to push the ramp away beneath Louisa’s feet.
The beginning of this passage is rather idyllic, with the image of townspeople happily gathering together on the lawn to enjoy a picnic and evening festivities. However, things immediately turn sinister when Cora realizes there are no black people around—at least, none who are still alive. This realization highlights the idea that white happiness in America is built on the exploitation, suffering, and death of black people. This idea is then further confirmed by the evening’s entertainment, which takes the form of ridiculing black people and emphasizing the hierarchy of white supremacy. The townspeople’s treatment of Louisa displays the full, horrifying extent of their cruelty and ominously foreshadows what could happen to Cora if she is discovered.
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As the cotton trade boomed, more and more Africans were kidnapped and brought to America, such that in some states (such as Louisiana and Georgia) the number of black and white people became roughly equal. This ratio has made many white people terrified of rebellion. During the Southampton Rebellion, Nat Turner and his crew killed 65 white people before militias and patrollers lynched three times that number of black people in revenge. One night, Martin visits Cora, speaking to her in a whisper because his neighbor’s son is a night rider. Patrollers are entitled to stop any black person, and the patrollers will beat them and take them to jail (or worse) if they are an enslaved person without a pass. The patrollers also terrify freemen, destroying their possessions and raping them. Cora tells Martin that black people “know, but don’t say” that they make up a significant proportion of the population.
This passage highlights the backwards logic of white supremacy—although white people do everything in their power to maintain absolute control over black people, they remain terrified by the possibility of rebellion. In this way, the relationship between white people and black people becomes an ever-increasing cycle of violence and fear. Facing brutality, black people rebel, and white people meet this with further brutality, which in turn makes black people even more desperate to resist. The result is a climate of seemingly unending violence that will, of course, eventually collapse.
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The previous year, local men in North Carolina had gathered to decide what to do about this population question at a meeting called the “Justice Convention.” Jamison, who is a senator, was in attendance. The men decided to encourage white people to come to North Carolina to pick cotton; Cora remarks that she has never seen a white person pick cotton before, and Martin replies that, until he moved to North Carolina, he’d never seen “a mob rip a man limb from limb.” North Carolina essentially abolished slavery by abolishing black people. When Cora asks where the black people went, Martin replies, “you saw.” The government bought enslaved people from farmers and sold them in other slave-owning states. Black people were flat-out banned from North Carolina, and anyone caught in the state was lynched and hung up on the “Freedom Trail.”
This is not an entirely accurate account of slavery in North Carolina, but rather a symbolic representation of the deeply unjust history of black people in America. To begin with, Africans were kidnapped and brought to America against their will. Once there, they were forced to work in bondage until their deaths, unwelcome on the land to which they’d been brought except as tools for profit. When slavery was finally abolished, the formerly enslaved faced persecution by white people who immediately wanted black people gone, paying no regard to the fact that it was whites who brought black people to America in the first place.
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All towns in North Carolina hold a Friday Festival. Whites found guilty of assisting black people are hanged, but their bodies are not added to the Freedom Trail. The punishment for even possessing abolitionist literature is technically jail time, although in reality it is often death. When it seems that too few white people are being arrested, towns increase the rewards given to those who turn in their friends, relatives, and neighbors. Patrollers have the right to conduct random inspections on any person’s home, and Martin’s house was searched twice before Cora arrived. Martin apologizes for Ethel’s behavior, telling Cora that it is not her fault—however, Cora responds by pointing out that the enslaved are certainly not responsible for their predicament.
Having survived to this point in her journey and witnessed so many atrocities, Cora has little patience or forgiveness for Ethel and other white people who are resistant to helping runaways. It is easy to make excuses for white people who face terrifying consequences if they choose to assist the enslaved—yet could it really ever be morally acceptable for a white person to be complicit with slavery? For Cora, the answer is a certain no.
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The heat in the attic is sometimes so intense that Cora loses consciousness. She grows thin from lack of food and suffers from violent nightmares. At first Cora asks Martin regularly if there is any news from the underground railroad, but after a few months she stops asking. Cora complains that Martin is holding her hostage, but he insists that if she leaves they will all certainly be killed. During the days, Cora listens to Fiona cursing while Martin and Ethel are out. Cora is curious about the Irish community from which Fiona comes, wondering how they feel about doing “nigger work” in the cotton fields. Cora spends much of her time imagining either the “ornate hell” that Terrance will engineer if she is captured and brought to him, or else the life she will lead if she finally manages to escape to the north. She envisions living in a pleasant house with her husband and two children, a boy and a girl. She imagines Mabel as an old beggar woman to whom she unthinkingly flings a few coins, and she imagines sharing memories of miraculous escape with Caesar. Cora feels no guilt about the white boy she killed. She thinks to herself that fear motivates white people “even more than cotton money” and concludes that “the whites were right to be afraid.” She cheers herself by thinking of her rebellion, before remembering the attic walls—and the entire country—that keep her prisoner.
Cora’s time in the attic is a kind of purgatory in which she must spend every day wondering whether she will be sent to hell (Randall) or to heaven (freedom in the north). Spending most of her time alone, Cora tortures herself with visions of both scenarios, thereby filling herself with fear over the idea of being caught and frustration over her desire to be free. Cora’s isolation in the attic also further emphasizes her isolation in a more general sense. Mabel, Lovey, and Caesar are all gone, and Cora may never learn their fates. Meanwhile, the only person who behaves kindly to her is Martin—Ethel is hostile, and if Fiona merely learns of Cora’s presence it is certain that the entire household will be murdered. Indeed, the town lying beyond Cora’s claustrophobic attic confirms her isolation even further. She is trapped, surrounded by fatal danger on every side.
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A week before the summer solstice, there are a series of “bad omens.” First, Cora accidentally knocks over her chamber pot, and the only reason why Fiona doesn’t notice is because a friend of hers happens to be visiting. Martin and Ethel fight constantly, and Cora reasons that the only reason Ethel hasn’t turned her in is because Ethel herself would be punished for her complicity. Growing up, Martin never heard his father, Donald, express an opinion about slavery, although their family was unusual for not owning slaves. After Donald’s death, Martin discovered a map to buried “treasure”—the underground railroad. It turned out that throughout Martin’s childhood, Donald had been working for the underground railroad and going on secret abolitionist missions disguised as business trips. Before his death, Donald successfully conveyed 12 runaways to freedom.
Martin’s story highlights the fact that people can be drawn to working for the underground railroad in different ways, and for different reasons. Some, like Ethel, are conscripted against their will, and are essentially forced to remain loyal to the railroad in order to keep themselves safe. Martin inherits his position as a station agent from his father, just as Cora inherited her connection to freedom from Mabel. However, there are hints that this inheritance can prove dangerous; while Donald was a skilled and inconspicuous agent, Martin struggles with the role he has assumed.
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Cora watches the townspeople who linger in the park after dark because they are “too afraid to go home.” Suddenly, she notices that the night riders are on the prowl. Cora huddles in the corner of the attic when the riders arrive at Martin’s house. She listens to the riders speak politely with Martin and Ethel before asking to go upstairs. Martin tells them they don’t go up themselves much as the raccoons have made a nest, and the night riders leave. The final bad omen is the lynching of a white couple whose daughter betrayed the fact that they were hiding two black boys in their house. The little boys’ bodies are strung up on the Freedom Trail. When Ethel is told about this, she faints. That night, Cora goes to bed and reflects on the strange meaning of freedom. Is she free now, confined to a tiny attic? Or was she more free on Randall, where she had space to walk around (yet was under the control of a master)? She thinks about Martin and Ethel, who are imprisoned by their own fear. She recalls her garden on Randall, which she now considers a “joke,” and she thinks of the Declaration of Independence, which she can hardly believe is real.
The three “bad omens” have left Cora with a sense of profound disillusionment about her current situation, as well as about the entirety of her life before this point and even the foundations of America itself. All around her, there are signs that white people—even little children—are cowardly at best, and fundamentally cruel at worst. What hope can there be for freedom and happiness in a country controlled by such people? Cora’s despair is made clear by the fact that she now considers her garden at Randall—a symbol of endurance and possibility—to be a “joke.” She resents any symbol of false optimism, including the Declaration of Independence, which she sees as being so at odds with the reality of America that it’s hard to believe it is real.
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That night Cora becomes very ill and violently throws up. Ethel cares for her, adopting a newly gentle attitude. Martin and Ethel tell Fiona not to come to work for a few days, knowing that Cora is too ill to hide properly. They pretend that Martin has the Venezuelan Pox and must be quarantined. Cora, delirious, dreams that Ethel kisses her forehead, and she awakens to Ethel reading scripture aloud to her. Cora tells her this isn’t necessary, but Ethel insists. Cora has been reading the Bible in an effort to improve her literacy skills, and she discusses a passage about slavery with Ethel, remarking that slavery is an abomination when white people are enslaved but apparently not when black people are. After a few days, Cora’s health improves and Fiona returns. That night, a Friday, the night riders storm into the house, pushing past Martin and Ethel. They grab Cora by the ankles and throw her down the stairs. Outside, townspeople have gathered, and a redheaded girl who Cora realizes is Fiona exclaims: “I knew they had someone up there!” and says she can’t wait to claim her reward.
Perversely, Cora’s illness improves her situation at Martin and Ethel’s house—by becoming nearer to death, Cora is afforded a taste of freedom (as well as kindness and care from Ethel). Ethel’s religiosity and desire to teach Cora about Christianity suggests that she appreciates Cora’s presence as long as she can treat Cora like a child, someone who must be “saved” rather than a person with her own autonomous agency. Having spent so long on the run, however, Cora has little patience for Ethel’s patronizing attitude, and isn’t afraid to confront her about the hypocrisy of Christians who support slavery. Fiona commits her own act of rebellion by turning on her employers, delighted to show off about her knowledge and receive her reward.
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Cora looks at Fiona and is astonished by how young she is. Martin says to Fiona, “We treated you nice,” and Fiona replies that they have a “queer way” and deserve whatever happens to them. Jamison appears and tells Martin that Donald would be ashamed of him. Ethel calls out that it was all Martin’s doing and she didn’t know anything. The tall man who grabbed Cora from the attic introduces himself as Ridgeway, and says that under the Fugitive Slave Law he has a right to return Cora to her owner. He tells Cora she doesn’t need to be afraid because she’s going “home.” A 10-year-old black boy (Homer) drives a wagon up, a sight Cora finds bizarre and “fantastical.” Fiona remarks that in order to get ahead in America, “a girl’s got to look after her interests.” Ridgeway’s associate fastens Cora’s ankles in chains; she watches as Martin and Ethel are tied to a tree. The townspeople begin to throw stones at Ethel, laughing at her screams. The crowd closes in.
The brutal end to Cora’s time in North Carolina highlights disturbing realities beneath the fantasy of American history. Neither Fiona, Jamison, or any of the townspeople show any mercy for Martin and Ethel, and even delight in their misery by laughing at Ethel’s screams. Ridgeway, meanwhile, sadistically tells Cora not to worry because she is going “home,” knowing full well that what awaits Cora back at Randal is torture and death. The sight of Homer driving the wagon adds a surreal element to the whole situation, somehow making the scene feel even more horrifying. As Cora is driven away, she is alone, her allies once again left dead in her wake.
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