In order to allow Hiram access to the deepest circle of the Underground, Corrine has to trust him completely, and in order to test his trustworthiness, she demands “the destruction of Georgie Parks.” She tells Hiram that Georgie has betrayed many others before him. She wants to frame him for betrayal—not a betrayal of the Tasked, but of his Taskmasters. As punishment, he will be killed or re-enslaved, his family brutally broken up. The Underground cannot kill him themselves, because this would draw too much attention. Yet by framing him to the enslavers who employ him, they are still killing him—just in a more indirect (and likely more brutal) way.
Paradoxical as it may seem, it would actually be more merciful for the Underground to kill Georgie directly. At least they could try to do this in a clean, quick manner—and could even help Amber and the baby reach safety. Yet because this would likely endanger their cause, Corrine decides to frame Georgie. This means physical torture not just of Georgie but likely of Amber too, as well as the destruction of their family.
Hiram feels uncertain, but Corrine reminds him that Georgie effectively tried to kill him. Sending people to the South is a fate worse than death. Yet Hiram sees how slavery traps everyone, and wonders if Corrine should be allowed to judge Georgie in this way. Nevertheless, he knows that ultimately, he has little choice when it comes to getting revenge on Georgie. A month later, Hawkins tells Hiram to take two nights off from work to rest. When they meet up to complete the assignment, Hawkins indicates that Hiram is about to pass a point of no return.
This is one of several points in which the novel explores the idea that while slavery erodes white people’s humanity, it does not have the same effect on black people. Corrine’s merciless judgment of Georgie suggests that she is not able to feel empathy and take into account the contextual factors that led him to betray Hiram. Hiram is more understanding despite the fact that he was the actual victim.
Hiram, Hawkins, and Mr. Fields drink three cups of hard cider to prepare themselves. Hawkins tells the others about a local enslaved man named Parnel Johns who was stealing crops from his master and selling it to low whites. The master responded by punishing all the enslaved people on his plantation as a group, leading them to resent Johns. Johns is not desperate to get out. He is “something of a genius” who plays the violin. Hiram protests the idea of granting freedom to someone relatively undeserving, but Mr. Fields says he doesn’t understand. He tells Hiram that his real name is Micajah Bland, and in doing so has placed his life in Hiram’s hands. He asks that Hiram trust them in return.
The passage further explores the idea that Hiram has a more innocent, principled sense of morality than the other Underground agents. He believes that freedom should be given to the most morally deserving first, yet of course, this is difficult to implement in reality. In a sense, it also contradicts Hiram’s previous thoughts about Georgie, which emphasized the fact that slavery can corrupt black people’s ability to act morally by placing them in impossible situations.
The three of them set off on foot through the woods. After walking for six hours, they meet Johns, holding his forged documents. On Johns’s signal, a 17-year-old girl emerges from the woods and joins him. Johns explains that she is his daughter, Lucy. Hawkins is furious, but reluctantly agrees to take her with them. Th group of them walk for many more hours, before eventually resting in a cave. While Hiram is on lookout, Lucy comes out to join him. She indicates that she isn’t Johns’s daughter, but his lover, although he also has a wife and two children back on the plantation. She says that people say Johns is a “scoundrel,” but the truth is that he just can’t accept the life he has been given.
The story of Johns and Lucy evokes the narrative told by the old man in the prison cell. Johns pretends that Lucy is his daughter because he thinks this will make him look more morally upstanding and thus deserving of freedom than if he told the truth, which is that she is his young mistress.
Lucy explains that she caught Johns fleeing and demanded that he take her with him. The journey continues, until they eventually reach a cabin where Hawkins announces their arrival with a special whistle. An old white woman comes out, and after helping her restart her fire, the Underground agents leave Johns and Lucy with her.
This passage illustrates the way the Underground works: agents help runaways flee the plantation and help safely transport them through the network of safehouses, until they (hopefully) reach freedom in the North.
After successfully completing this mission, it is decided that Hiram should be sent north, to Philadelphia. He is given a new identity as a formerly enslaved man who had bought his freedom. He keeps the same name, but with the addition of the surname Walker. He, Hawkins, and Bland will travel by train, with Hawkins posing as an enslaved man owned by Bland. Hiram has forged papers proving his free status, and there is extra security in the form of Bland, who can confirm Hiram’s identity. Hawkins advises Hiram to “act like a freeman,” and when they set off Hiram repeats to himself, “I am free.”
The fact that Hiram is “given” the last name Walker is poignant, considering Hiram is the son of Howell and thus, if he were white, would automatically inherit his surname. In general, enslaved people did not have surnames, and so were known by their first name only (which was, in turn, usually chosen by their enslaver). By being given the surname Walker, Hiram symbolically becomes free yet also becomes more tightly tied to his former enslaver.