Colson Whitehead's fictional Underground Railroad is a literal train line that runs across America, built by former slaves for their own liberation. In reality, the Underground Railroad is the symbolic name for the networks across America used by fugitive slaves and their allies to facilitate escape. The notion of the Underground Railroad is widely taught in American public schools, and thus Whitehead can rely on a shared national understanding to execute the central conceit of the novel. But what actually was the Underground Railroad, and how does its historical importance figure in Whitehead’s novel?
The term “Underground Railroad” is an unofficial one, making its origins hard to trace. One theory for its first use describes an incident between a runaway slave named Tice Davids and his master in Ohio. In close pursuit, his master arrived on the other side of a river bank only to discover Davids was nowhere to be found. He exclaimed, “He must have gone on an underground railroad!” That was in 1831; indeed, the Railroad was most active in the sixty years before the American Civil War (1861-5). Estimates put the number of workers, white and black, at 3,200, which included about 500 former fugitives who returned as Railroad operatives (Bial 8). A patchwork network of “stations”—in reality only safe houses—stretched northward through to Canada.
Yet there is certainly disagreement about historians over the nature of the Underground Railroad—was it a coherent, organized network, or an absolutely chaotic myth (Goodheart)? The sources that provide clarity into these questions were long neglected by American historians, literary scholars, and the public. In the 1930s, however, the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began cataloging oral histories under the title, “Slave Narrative Collection.” The fugitive slave narrative, as the genre came to be known, was written by any number of slaves who survived their experiences riding the Underground Railroad and came to publish accounts of their travels. The most famous of the genre are those published by prominent black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. However, thousands of such accounts exist.
Whitehead embarked on a thorough investigation of this literary genre as research for the writing of The Underground Railroad. In an interview with National Public Radio in 2016, Whitehead comments that the tones of the slave narratives he read were often quite matter-of-fact. His own novel is written in much the same style. And by converting a metaphor into a real machine, Whitehead makes concrete the labor required to seek freedom. This literary choice allows the story of his protagonist, Cora, to conjure the voices of the thousands of heroic slaves who took it upon themselves to seek freedom.