The protagonist of The Underground Railroad, Cora is a discerning, intelligent, and determined character. The book is largely narrated from her perspective, as she escapes her life as a slave on a Georgia plantation and makes her way on the Underground Railroad through several states and eventually to freedom. As a young girl, she is abandoned by her mother, Mabel, who runs away. Cora finds solace in tending to her mother’s garden plot even as she is relegated to the status of an outcast among slaves. She runs away with another slave, Caesar, to South Carolina. There, she works first as a nanny to white children and then as a living model for a museum’s history exhibits. She flees alone to North Carolina when she and Caesar are discovered by a slave catcher, Ridgeway, and she hides in an attic for months. Ridgeway eventually captures her there and they travel through Tennessee together. On their way back to the plantation, a group of Underground Railroad agents rescue Cora and bring her to a free black farm in Indiana, where she heals, falls in love, and lives a normal life. The farm is eventually destroyed by white settlers in an act of racial hatred, and Ridgeway finds Cora again. She pushes him to his death in an Underground Railroad station and escapes for the final time. Her story comes to an ambiguously optimistic end when she joins a caravan heading to California.
Born in Africa and brutally sold into slavery in America, Ajarry ends up in Georgia at the Randall plantation. She takes three husbands, all of whom are either sold or die. Ajarry gives birth to five children, all of whom die except one, Mabel. She began gardening on a small plot of land by the slave cabins, growing yams and okra, a legacy that she leaves to Mabel and Cora. Ajarry dies of an aneurysm while working in the cotton fields, her life defined by slavery.
Ajarry’s daughter, Mabel is born into slavery on the Randall plantation and is the only one of Ajarry’s five children to live past the age of ten. She has a difficult life on Randall, surviving sexual assault at the hands of another slave, Moses. She falls in love with another slave, Grayson, when she is fourteen, who fathers Cora and dies shortly after of fever. One day, when Cora is nine years old, Mabel leaves her and attempts to escape Randall, so that she can taste freedom and also so Cora will know it is possible. She decides to return to the plantation, however, because she realizes that Cora needs her. On her way back through the swamp, a cottonmouth snake bites her and she dies. No one finds her body, so the other characters believe she escaped successfully. Cora grows up to resent her mother for leaving her behind.
Caesar was born a slave on a small farm in Virginia owned by a widow named Mrs. Garner. The old woman taught her slaves to read and write and promises to free Caesar and his parents, Lily Jane and Jerome. After Mrs. Garner dies, however, Caesar and his parents are sold separately, with Caesar sold to the Randall plantation. On Randall, he treasures his skill at woodworking, selling his bowls at weekend markets, and also his secret ability to read. He decides to escape and convinces Cora to run away with him. The two become close over the course of their escape and when they settle in South Carolina, Caesar tries to kiss Cora. She is unsure about his advances, but Ridgeway finds them before she can make up her mind. Ridgeway puts Caesar in jail, where he is killed by a white mob.
Cora’s closest friend on the Randall plantation, Lovey loves to dance and celebrate the simple, small joys of plantation life. She runs away with Cora and Caesar, but is captured before making it out of Georgia. Cora learns of her fate near the end of the novel: once captured, Lovey was impaled on a stake, her body displayed as a warning to other slaves on Randall.
Blake is a strong field hand from the Carolinas sold to the Randall plantation when Cora is a young girl. He tries to take over Cora’s garden plot for his dog. Cora destroys his doghouse with a hatchet to protect her land and earns her reputation as a Hob woman, an outcast.
The oldest slave on the Randall plantation, Jockey announces the date of his birthday whenever he feels like it. On every birthday, the slaves on the northern half of the Randall plantation throw a big celebration.
A young boy on the Randall plantation who is alone after both his parents are sold, Chester becomes friends with Cora. He accidentally spills a drop of wine on Terrance Randall’s shirt and incurs Terrance’s rage. Cora tries to shield Chester from Terrance’s beating and they are both whipped.
One of Old Randall's two sons, he takes over control of the plantation with his brother James upon their father’s death. James dies shortly after and Terrance is left as the sole master. He is a cruel tyrant of a master, inflicting sadistic punishments on his slaves. He becomes obsessed with Cora after she protects Chester from his beating and especially after she runs away. Towards the end of the novel, his heart gives out in a New Orleans brothel.
A less volatile master than his brother, James inherits the northern half of the plantation from his father. He allows the slaves feast days and occasional celebrations, and is content with the steady, dependable profits of the plantation. He falls ill and dies, leaving his half of the plantation to the care of Terrance.
A cruel overseer on the Randall plantation, Connolly was hired by the original Randall. He is known on the plantation for sleeping with the female slaves and doling out harsh punishment with his whip.
He is a white man in Georgia who operates a station of the Underground Railroad. Cora and Caesar escape through him. Eventually Ridgeway forces a confession from him. His fate is unknown but he is most likely killed by Ridgeway.
A well-known and feared slave-catcher, Ridgeway believes in the ideals of a violent, white supremacist America. He grew up in Virginia with a blacksmith father who drove him to find his purpose. Ridgeway failed to find Mabel when she ran away, and so he becomes obsessed with recapturing her daughter, Cora. He pursues her relentlessly across state boundaries throughout the novel. In the final pages of the novel, Cora mortally wounds him by pushing him down the steps of the Underground Railroad station in Tennessee.
Ridgeway’s assistant, Boseman is often on the same page as the slave catcher even without words. He wears a necklace of ears that he won in a wrestling match from a Native American man named Strong, and is afraid of contagious disease because his brothers died of yellow fever. In Tennessee, he tries to rape Cora, but Ridgeway stops him. He is shot and killed when Royal and other Railroad agents rescue Cora from Ridgeway’s wagon in Tennessee.
A black slave captured by Ridgeway, Jasper constantly sings hymns. He is chained with Cora to the back of Ridgeway’s wagon as they ride through Tennessee back to their masters. Eventually Ridgeway shoots Jasper to silence him, calculating that the peace and quiet would be worth more than the value of Jasper’s reward.
A ten-year-old black boy, Homer drives Ridgeway’s wagon and keeps his records. Formerly a slave, he was set free by Ridgeway, but stays by his side. A mystery to Cora, Homer wears a black suit and hat and seems unbothered by the racism and violence perpetuated by his boss.
An Underground Railroad station agent in South Carolina, Sam is a twenty-five-year-old white man employed at the local whites-only pub. He provides Cora and Caesar with false papers and stories, and becomes a friend to them over the course of their time in North Carolina. When Ridgeway finds Cora and Caesar in North Carolina, Sam’s house is burned to the ground. Cora doesn’t know if Sam makes it out alive or not until he shows up to the Valentine farm in Indiana on a job for the Underground Railroad. He plans to head out west to California.
A proctor in Cora’s dormitory in South Carolina, she recommends Cora for a job as a living exhibit in the Museum of Natural Wonders, and encourages her to to choose the birth control surgery that she is offered by government doctors. Cora doesn’t trust Miss Lucy, and eventually finds out she is most likely part of the state’s regime of eugenics and forced sterilization to control the black population.
He is a white government doctor, originally from Maine and trained in a Boston medical school. As a student, he paid for his tuition and living expenses by working as a body snatcher, stealing bodies from their graves to sell on the black market for dissection and the study of anatomy. In South Carolina, he works as a doctor advocating a birth control method for black women.
A North Carolina station agent, Martin hides Cora in his home despite the danger. He is a reluctant agent of the Underground Railroad, taking up the cause as the legacy of his abolitionist father, Donald. Martin talks with Cora often during her time hiding in his attic, and gives her almanacs to read. The town lynches Martin and his wife, Ethel, when they discover they have been hiding Cora.
Martin’s wife grew up wealthy in Virginia. All her life, she wanted to be a missionary in Africa, but became a schoolteacher when her parents deemed her choice ill-suited. She reluctantly accepts Cora into her home in North Carolina, fearful of getting caught. When Cora falls sick, however, she finds redemption through nursing Cora back to health. The text insinuates that Ethel is a lesbian, though it is never stated outright. Ethel is lynched along with her husband by the North Carolina townspeople.
Royal is a freeborn black man who began working for the Underground Railroad in New York City. He lives on the Valentine farm. On a mission for the Railroad in Tennessee, Royal and a few other agents rescues Cora from Ridgeway. Royal brings Cora back to the Valentine farm, where they pursue a slow-building romance. Cora is cautious but eventually opens her heart to Royal, and he becomes the first person she truly loves and confides in. He shows Cora the Underground Railroad station near the farm, where Cora eventually escapes. When the Valentine farm is stormed by Ridgeway and the white mob, Royal is shot and dies in Cora’s arms.
John and Gloria Valentine
They are the owners of the Valentine farm, a community of free black people and runaways in Indiana. John is light-skinned and white-passing. When he met Gloria, she was still a slave, working on an indigo plantation. He purchased her freedom and they wed shortly after. After their sons were born, they decided to escape the racial violence of the South. They began growing corn in Indiana. When a sick runaway slave showed up on his doorstep, John Valentine became an advocate for his people, opening up his farm to free black farmers, runaways, and activists. It is here where Cora recuperates after Royal rescues her from Ridgeway. The farm is eventually destroyed by a white settler mob, but they escape with their family to Oklahoma.
Sybil and Molly
A mother and her ten-year-old daughter, Sybil and Molly are runaway slaves. They live on the Valentine farm in a cabin that Cora shares, and are a model of mother-daughter love for Cora. The three have close, affectionate relationships.
He is a former slave who seeks political power on the Valentine farm. While a slave, he hired himself out from his master on weekends to earn wages, and eventually bought the freedom of his entire family. On Valentine, he advocates for the community to stop accepting runaways and to seek black progress without further provocation of white racism.
A free black man, Lander was born in Boston to a rich white lawyer and his black wife. Exceedingly intelligent, Lander became the first black student at an elite white university. After his education, he became an orator for the abolitionist cause. Lander is shot and killed by the white mob while making a speech to the Valentine farm on the importance of community.
The last person Cora meets on her journey in the novel, he is a kind black man traveling as part of a mixed-race caravan heading west. Cora comes upon him after she emerges from the Underground Railroad after fleeing the Valentine farm in Indiana. Ollie offers Cora food and a ride to St. Louis, and then on to California, which she accepts, and the novel concludes.
The Underground Railroad Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Underground Railroad is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I'm sorry, the is a short-answer question forum. We are unable to provide students with questions. There are, however, many questions that have been asked and answered for this unit. I would suggest you read through them.... it might give you some...