Cora finds herself learning in a schoolhouse again, this time surrounded by children much more advanced in their letters than she. The teacher, Georgina, is from Delaware. At first, Georgina makes Cora feel silly, but after a few months on the Valentine farm, Cora and Georgina become friends. Cora has also become close with a ten-year-old girl, Molly; she lives with Molly and her mother in a cabin on the farm. The two join the crowd hanging around the barbecue: a big Saturday roast was scheduled for that evening, prepared by Jimmy, an old man on the farm who had escaped there from North Carolina.
Cora and Molly head home. Molly and her mother, Sybil, had run away from a mean master years ago. They put effort into the appearance of their cabin, which the three of them now share. They pick up their quilting to pass the time until dinner. Cora is still struggling to learn how to quilt, but enjoys the time working in silence and observing the love between Sybil and Molly. She still has not heard word of what happened to her own mother, Mabel: when she first arrived on the Valentine farm, she asked everyone if they knew her, to no avail. Now, after quilting for a while, Cora feels a headache coming on, and she curls up in bed.
Supper is held that evening outside the big, multi-purpose meeting house. They eat roasted pig, collards, turnips, sweet potato pie, and other dishes. Over a hundred people live on the farm, including about fifty children—an impressive number. The community files into the meeting house after eating their fill. The meeting is presided over by Gloria Valentine, while her husband, John, is in Chicago meeting with the bank to renegotiate a loan for the farm. Gloria was a slave when John met her. He purchased her freedom and the two wed almost immediately.
The politics of the farm are present in the meeting house. Mingo sits in the front row; he advocates reducing the number of runaways the Valentine farm takes in to reduce the danger of white retaliation. As a slave, Mingo had worked weekends until he was able to purchase the freedom of his wife, his children, and himself. Nevertheless, neither Sybil nor Cora like or trust him.
Gloria introduces the entertainment for the evening: a flirtatious poet named Ramsey Brooks. Cora doesn’t care much for his poetry, or for the dancing that follows. Her presence on the Valentine farm is miracle enough. She leaves the celebrations and heads home to her cabin. When she gets there, Royal is waiting on her porch. He has been away for a few days on a mission for the Underground Railroad, and Cora has been worried. He has a black eye but is otherwise home safe. Royal takes a gift for Cora out of his bag: it is a recently published almanac.
Cora began working on the farm the day after she arrived, first in the laundry, then in the milk house, the nursery, and the fields. Elijah Lander, an educated free black man from the North, gave a speech to the farm residents on the difficulty of finding purpose after slavery. His speech worried Cora, and Royal proposed a day trip out of the farm to give her a rest from work. They had a picnic in a meadow. and Royal put his head in Cora’s lap. On their way back, Royal pulls the buggy down a side path to show her an old, abandoned station of the Underground Railroad.
Looking at the small, dank abandoned station made Cora think of the night she was rescued by Royal and the others. The men had chained Ridgeway and the dying Boseman to the wagon and kept them blindfolded as they rode to the Tennessee station of the Underground Railroad. Royal was the first freeborn black man Cora had ever met. He was raised in Connecticut by freeborn parents from New York City. Royal apprenticed with a printer, and set out for Manhattan when he was eighteen. He met the famous white abolitionist lawyer, Eugene Wheeler by chance and quickly became his assistant. Eventually, he began to work for the Underground Railroad. It was on his latest mission for the railroad in Tennessee when he spotted Cora.
The chapter moves back in time. Aboard the freshly painted train that took them out of Tennessee, Royal tells her what to expect from the Valentine farm. John Valentine is light-skinned, so when he bought Gloria, the white townspeople didn’t make much of it. The couple kept her freedom and their marriage a secret. An incident of racial violence convinced their family to leave Virginia and purchase some cheap land in Indiana, where he became successful growing corn. One day, a runaway named Margaret arrived at his doorstep, who died of fever a few days later. Meeting Margaret made Valentine an abolitionist almost overnight. His farm became an office of the Underground Railroad. People came to stay, and the white-passing Valentine bought up surrounding land for other black farmers. The unpopulated land in Indiana soon attracted white settlers, who arrived to find black farms already part of the landscape. Royal’s summary did not include the political divisions among the community, nor the white settlers’ growing dislike of the black farm. Cora decided to stay on the farm instead of continuing on the Railroad further north. That first month, Cora grew accustomed to the rhythms and labors of the farm. When Royal brings her to see the dilapidated station, she knows she does not want to run anymore.
One day on the farm, Sam appears at Cora’s door. It turns out he had escaped the mob who burned his house to the ground and killed Caesar; he headed to Delaware, where he worked as a station agent. Next, Sam plans to head out west to California. He also tells Cora that Terrance Randall is dead. In his final days, he became obsessed with capturing Cora, increasing the reward on her head. Finally, his heart gave out in a New Orleans brothel. Cora asks Sam about Ridgeway, who has become an outcast since losing her in Tennessee. Ridgeway and Homer disappeared together in shame.
Sam stays long enough to participate in the corn shucking bee. The competition takes place the day after Cora and Royal’s first kiss. Royal tells Cora she is free now that Terrance has died: no relative will search for her the way he did. Cora disagrees, reflecting on how everything on the Valentine farm, even the harvest, is the opposite of how it was on the Randall plantation. Mingo wins the shucking bee and the evening comes to a close.
Sam leaves for California and winter approaches. Cora spends a lot of time in the library, sometimes bringing Molly. She reads Valentine’s impressive collection of Negro literature, learning the story of her people in America. One day, John Valentine joins her in the library. John and Cora discuss the upcoming debate on the future of the farm and issues of black progress. Outbursts of racial hatred have increased lately from the white settlers around the farm. There’s a chance the Valentine farm may have to uproot and establish their community elsewhere. Cora notices that Valentine appears exhausted.
The evening before the debate, Royal brings Cora next year’s almanac to read. The gift touches Cora deeply. She opens up to Royal for the first time, telling him about her childhood on Randall; about her grandmother Ajarry and her mother Mabel; about Blake and his doghouse; and about what happened the night the men dragged her behind the smokehouse. She apologizes for letting herself be raped, and Royal tells her that her suffering is not her fault, and that her enemies would all be punished in due time. Royal holds her while she cries and they fall asleep together in Cora’s bed.
The next evening they sit in the front row in the meeting house, next to Mingo and his family. She looks around the room, amazed by how large the community has grown. The speeches commence, introduced by Valentine, who appears unsteady. Mingo speaks first, arguing that some former slaves have been broken by slavery, and that they cannot save them all. They must protect their relationship with whites so that they can continue their quest for black uplift. Next, Lander takes the podium. He argues they must proceed as a community. He reminds the crowd that their very existence is a miracle, a delusion. They must try to continue the miracle.
The moment is broken when Lander is shot in the chest. Royal runs up to him and is shot three times in the back. White men ransack the meeting house and the community flees. Cora holds Royal’s head in her lap and weeps. Royal smiles at her and, just before he dies, tells to her to go the station in the woods and escape through the Underground Railroad. Cora flees the meeting house, searching for faces she knows. Suddenly Ridgeway grabs her. At his side, Homer winks at Cora, and tells Ridgeway he overheard Royal mention a tunnel of the Underground Railroad.
This chapter is highly significant in the novel for its portrayal of freedom. Throughout the past chapters, readers watch Cora as she travels through catastrophe after catastrophe in search of freedom. We also hear of her dreams for freedom, which include the unidentified face of a future husband, children, and a happy home. In this chapter, Cora finds a certain kind of freedom in the Valentine farm, working together for community.
Freedom on the farm means freedom from slavery, but not from work. Everyone’s labor is required. The work of the Valentine farm consists of working with the crops in the field, doing the laundry, or minding the babies. Every one of these tasks also occurred on the Randall plantation. But if the labor’s content is the same, the character of it is starkly different on the Valentine farm. Labor can be something beautiful, Cora realizes. The community “laboring for something lovely,” is, in fact, part of what freedom comes to mean.
Yet there is still something unsettled about Cora’s place in this free society. Even though the Valentine farm brings a new blessing every day for Cora, “a bitter part of her refused.” Cora remembers what happened in South Carolina: she had happily settled into a setting of “false promises,” and now she is wary (252). This is the effect of trauma. Readers have watched her go through unimaginable horrors in her journey through the novel. Now, in a place where she might be able to rest, she is unable to do so. What is the point of freedom if it can’t be enjoyed?
The ruinous end of the farm is also ominously foreshadowed throughout the chapter. Royal takes Cora to see the Indiana station of the Underground Railroad on a day trip out of the farm. He suggests she might use it one day, hinting that a time may come where Cora will have to run again. In addition, the racial animus of the farm’s white neighbors comes up several times throughout the chapter; eventually coming to a head in a raid that brings about the farm’s demise. The text itself references that demise, preemptively calling the fateful meeting the “final gathering” of the farm (279).
In the meantime, however, the Valentine farm is an important site of emotional catharsis for Cora. Her status as a stray begins to fade in spite of the trauma she has been through. The ten-year-old Molly holds her hand after school and asks her to braid her hair; she makes several friends, Sybil, for example, and the schoolteacher Georgina; and most significantly, she opens her heart to love with Royal. In a touching scene, Cora and Royal hold each other in her bed in the cabin. Cora pours out her story to Royal, the first time she has done so to anyone. Through her voice, Ajarry and Mabel come alive again. She finally tells him about the rape that has haunted her for so long, and together, they absolve her of the guilt and shame she has carried. Even though the Valentine farm, and her budding love with Royal, is soon destroyed, this moment is vital for Cora in dealing with her trauma.