The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead

Book summary

Cora, a 17-year-old slave, escapes from the plantation in Georgia and goes North, where blacks are free. As she goes North, we follow the turmoils of this freedom. There’s violence, in one way or another, everywhere she goes. 

In South Carolina, she can behave free, but she’s owned by the government. There are health experiments run on blacks and black women are neutered against their will. Her job is to entertain whites by being in an exhibition as, you guessed it, a slave. 

We also see the oddities of black bodies being stolen from the grave to be used in medical schools because no one will sue or pursue justice. 

In North Carolina, there are no blacks. North Carolina doesn’t have slaves, but ran away any black person. They wanted a whites only state. With regular performances in which any blacks caught are hanged, and so are those that helped the blacks. Cora’s helpers, Martin and Ethel, are caught and hanged.

In Indiana, all seems unreal. A black community thriving. Blacks getting educated. Space to raise children. Eventually, they are attacked by whites. 

Towards the end of the story, Cora is continuing on to who knows where, after losing all her loved ones one way or another. Tragedy strikes everywhere she goes, sooner or later. 

Two words: Heart-breaking, awe-inspiring

Notes from book club discussion (Risha’s)

  • Railroad: the way it operated and so weird, no direction, made the reader be able to really feel the lack of control. Forces you to understand that you have to put yourself at the mercy of others. 
  • Cora’s mom: was it a blessing or a curse that she never found out what happened to her mom? Would she have just stayed in the plantation forever? 
  • Slave catching and policing: a way to get power as a poor white, get into policing. Keeps the rich’s system going by giving power without actually lifting up the poor whites. 

Book Notes


This chapter sets up the tone for slavery in the South, with the many illustrations of how men and women are treated like property. Not human. 

She used the doghouse for firewood. It kept her and the rest of Hob warm one night, but its legend marked her for the rest of her time on the Randall plantation.
Love this line, representing triumph over an injustice. After Cora’s confrontation with Blake, the man who wanted to take her plot of land. 
September 6, 2020

The Randall brothers, James and Terrance. James was the older one, not as cruel, but he died. Terrance took over. 

Arnold Ridgeway, The Slave Chaser

Father was a blacksmith. He became a patrol and later a slave chaser. 

The entire economy revolved around cotton, the father, a blacksmith, supplied metal parts. The son chased slaves and brought them back. Ultimately, they both supplied tools for the cotton industry.

South Carolina

Cora starts to find a level of freedom. She has a job, she can go to parties, she’s technically owned by the government based on her fake papers, Bessy, but she doesn’t feel like a slave. That said, she’s not equal to white people. 

Her job is to be showcased at a museum. She’s in sets acting as a slave in a set; an exhibition for white people. 

The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib.Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.
In her newfound freedom, Cora started to see the differences between white and blacks, even in South Carolina – the progressive of the Southern States.

Also, some black people don’t have a choice on whether to be “neutered”. For females with a history  of crime, or with a mental disability, it is possible to be mandated to have surgery to prevent child bearing. 

They had gone to bed believing themselves free from white people’s control and commands about what they should do and be. That they managed their own affairs. But the women were still being herded and domesticated. Not pure merchandise as formerly but livestock: bred, neutered. Penned in dormitories that were like coops or hutches.
September 6, 2020


On the oddity of corpses being valuable for medical research, and people stealing bodies. 

Carpenter turned to niggers exclusively.The niggers did not post sentries over their dead. Niggers did not pound on the door of the sheriff, they did not haunt the offices of the newspapermen. No sheriff paid them any mind, no journalist listened to their stories. The bodies of their loved ones disappeared into sacks and reappeared in the cool cellars of medical schools to relinquish their secrets. Every one of them a miracle, in Stevens’s view, providing instruction into the intricacies of God’s design.
Corpses were valuable, so some started stealing and selling them.
September 7, 2020119

North Carolina

Cora and Caesar are separated, we assume that Caesar was trapped and punished when returned to Georgia. The Underground railroad’s station was destroyed in South Carolina. 

Cora found a way out through a maintenance train. But, they could only take her to North Carolina and that place is crazy. Terrible scene of hanging bodies on the “freedom trail”. 

“They call this road the Freedom Trail now,” Martin said as he covered the wagon again. “The bodies go all the way to town.”In what sort of hell had the train let her off?
September 7, 2020

Cora hid in a man’s home, in the attic, peeked out through a little hole. Saw a show about slaves acted by white men in blackface. Always mocking the black man’s intelligence. At the end of the weekly festivities, they’d hang a black person they’ve caught that week. Every town had the same “celebration”. She watched from the attic through a peep hole. 

The last scene depicted the slave on his master’s doorstep, having once again run away, this time from the false promises of the Free States. He begged after his former position, lamenting his folly and asking for forgiveness. With kind and patient words, the master explained that it was impossible. In the slave’s absence, North Carolina had changed. The master whistled and two patrollers ushered the prostrate slave from the premises.
In North Carolina, things were changing, but they still depicted slaves as “better off slaved” in a play.
September 8, 2020135

“For this separate nation we have forged, free from northern interference and the contamination of a lesser race. The black horde has been beaten back, correcting the mistake made years ago at this nation’s nativity. Some, like our brothers just over the state line, have embraced the absurd notion of nigger uplift. Easier to teach a donkey arithmetic.” He bent down to rub Louisa’s head. “When we find the odd rascal, our duty is clear.”
Any black person caught in North Carolina was hanged. They didn’t believe in integration with black people, just ejected them from their state.
September 8, 2020137

Cora couldn’t move or make noise during the day or the “girl” in the house would tell others and her hosts would be killed for keeping a fugitive. 

On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.
September 8, 2020

While in North Carolina, Cora hid in an attic for months. There was no way out. She’d get caught if she tried to escape. 

She questioned the bible’s mandates. But, whites had a way to justify slavery. 

“It means what it says,” Ethel said. “It means that a Hebrew may not enslave a Hebrew. But the sons of Ham are not of that tribe. They were cursed, with black skin and tails. Where the Scripture condemns slavery, it is not speaking of negro slavery at all.”
On justifying the bible’s contradiction on slavery.
September 8, 2020

Eventually, the slave catcher, Reindall, caught up with her and discovered her in North Carolina. Her hosts were hanged. She was sent back with the slave catcher to be returned to her owner.

As they pulled away, she saw Martin and Ethel. They had been tied to the hanging tree. They sobbed and heaved at their bonds. Mayor ran in mad circles at their feet. A blond girl picked up a rock and threw it at Ethel, hitting her in the face. A segment of the town laughed at Ethel’s piteous shrieks. Two more children picked up rocks and threw them at the couple. Mayor yipped and jumped as more people bent to the ground. They raised their arms. The town moved in and then Cora couldn’t see them anymore.
Those who helped slaves were severely punished.
September 9, 2020


“If he’s free, why don’t he go?”“Where?” Ridgeway asked. “He’s seen enough to know a black boy has no future, free papers or no. Not in this country. Some disreputable character would snatch him and put him on the block lickety-split. With me, he can learn about the world. Find purpose.”
Blacks at the mercy of whites. That is the sad observation.
September 9, 2020175

Missouri, back east, Georgia—it would be weeks before they delivered the man to his owner. Divide thirty-five dollars by, say, three weeks, minus Boseman’s share, and the lost bounty was a very small price to pay for silence and a restful mind.Homer opened his notebook and checked his boss’s figures. “He’s right,” he said.
Killing a prisoner slave just to quiet him…
September 9, 2020183


They joked and they picked fast when the bosses’ eyes were on them and they acted big, but at night in the cabin after midnight they wept, they screamed from nightmares and wretched memories. In Caesar’s cabin, in the next cabins over, and in every slave village near and far. When the work was done, and the day’s punishments, the night waited as an arena for their true loneliness and despair.
September 9, 2020


A black community, Valentine, that was an oasis for black people. But, by helping the slaves hide and get freed, they were provoking the whites nearby, who eventually attacked them. 

Fertility and lots of kids after being freed. 

Of the fifty or so children, most were under the age of five. “Liberty make a body fertile,” Georgina said. That, and the knowledge they will not be sold, Cora added.
September 11, 2020212

Trying to belong, to leave behind the plantation speech. 

Gloria worked hard on eliminating her plantation inflections—Cora heard her slip when conversation took a folksy turn—but she was naturally impressive, whether she spoke colored or white.
September 11, 2020214

Being the first to open a book. 

“It’s this year’s edition, but I thought you’d appreciate it even though it’s October. When I get to a place where they got next year’s, I’ll pick it up.”She grabbed his hand. The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.
September 11, 2020218

Slaves marked like cattle or horses. 

The scar made her nervous lately. She’d never thought overlong about brands before, the Xs and Ts and clovers slave masters burned into their chattel. A horseshoe puckered on Sybil’s neck, ugly and purple—her first owner had raised draft horses. Cora thanked the Lord that her skin had never been burned in such a way. But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without—and the wound from Randall’s cane was the very same thing, marking her as his.
September 11, 2020221

On meeting a freeborn, Royal.

Royal was the first freeborn man Cora had ever met. There were many freemen in South Carolina who’d relocated for the so-called opportunities, but they’d served their time as chattel. Royal took in liberty with his first breath.He was raised in Connecticut; his father was a barber and his mother a midwife. They were freeborn as well, hailing from New York City.
September 11, 2020225

“A free black walks different than a slave”

Royal’s quick wits and proud bearing made it clear the color of his skin was no impediment. “A free black walks different than a slave,” he said. “White people recognize it immediately, even if they don’t know it. Walks different, talks different, carries himself different. It’s in the bones.” Constables never detained him and kidnappers kept their distance.
September 12, 2020226

Bitterness from past crimes perpetuates hate and missery. 

On hearing of Cora’s accidental killing of the boy in Georgia, he smiled and said, “Good.”
Red’s wife and child were killed by whites, prompting this reaction to the killing of a white boy.
September 12, 2020226

The iron horse still rumbled
Interesting phrasing for train
September 12, 2020227

With his white face, Royal said, Valentine went down to the county seat and bought parcels for his friends with black faces, the former field hands who had come west, the fugitives who had found a haven on his farm. Found a purpose. When the Valentines arrived, that neck of Indiana was unpopulated. As the towns erupted into being, quickened by the relentless American thirst, the black farm was there as a natural feature of the landscape, a mountain or a creek. Half the white stores depended on its patronage; Valentine residents filled the squares and Sunday markets to sell their crafts. “It’s a place of healing,” Royal told Cora on the train north. “Where you can take stock and make preparations for the next leg of the journey.”
The safe haven built by a half white, freeman with his inheritance from a white father who recognized him as his son prior to dying.
September 12, 2020229

It was his final mission for the underground railroad. He was western bound. “Every pioneer I meet, they like their whiskey. They’ll be needing barkeeps in California.”It heartened her to see her friend happy and fat. So many of those who had helped Cora had come to awful fates. She had not got him killed.Then he gave her the news from her plantation, the second item that took the sting out of the Indiana cold.Terrance Randall was dead.
September 12, 2020233

In her Georgia misery she had pictured freedom, and it had not looked like this. Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.
September 12, 2020236

Cora saw the discussion had depleted him. “Why do all this,” she asked. “For all of us?”“I thought you were one of the smart ones,” Valentine said. “Don’t you know? White man ain’t going to do it. We have to do it ourselves.”
September 12, 2020240

“Valentine farm is a delusion. Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history, it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are.“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.
September 12, 2020247

Mabel’s death – Cora’s mom

Mabel never escaped, it was all a legend. She drowned and was swallowed up after being bitten by a snake, the moment she decided to turn back from her momentary escape.