The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4: South Carolina


The fourth chapter begins with the story of Bessie, who takes care of children and cleans the house for the Andersons. On Friday, Bessie takes the children to the park, does the shopping for dinner, and when Ms. Anderson comes home, says goodbye to the family for the weekend. She walks down the lively Main Street on the way to her dormitories, taking special note of the impressive Griffin Building. The Griffin Building is the tallest building in the South, and one of the tallest in the nation. It has a bank on the first floor and insurance agents, government offices, export firms, and law firms on the floors above. Mr. Anderson works on the eighth floor, so Bessie has been inside.

As Bessie passes the Griffin Building, she reflects on the change in her life: from slave to free woman. She walks more quickly, though, through the less well-off sections of white residents. She arrives at the dormitory, a new building built of red brick with white paint only just before Bessie’s arrival. Readers get to know the dormitory through Bessie’s eyes as she says hello to other residents, eats the communal supper of roast chicken with carrots and potatoes, and greets Miss Lucy, the white proctor. Bessie tells Miss Lucy she will stay in the dormitory that night, even though some of the girls were going out to the saloon. Miss Lucy corrects Bessie’s grammar and asks to speak with her before work on Monday morning, assuring her nothing was wrong and bidding her good night.

The chapter returns in time to the moment when Cora and Caesar emerge from the Underground Railroad to their new lives as Bessie Carpenter and Christian Markson. They are greeted by Sam, a young white man who provides them with much-needed food and an opportunity to wash up. When they have recovered slightly from their journey, Sam then tells them about South Carolina society. The state government is in the process of buying up slaves, he told them, who can live their lives as free men and women, working jobs and raising families. Cora and Caesar walk through town to the Placement Office to get jobs, mulling over the news of this unfamiliar society and marveling at their newfound freedom.

The chapter returns to Cora’s current life. South Carolina brings many new experiences. She attends school on Saturday mornings, where the teacher, Miss Handler, reminds them that education was a privilege not available to them in other slave states, and that learning takes time. Cora also visits Miss Lucy to ask her to check the records for her mother’s name, but the search turns up nothing. This makes Cora realize she has been angry at her mother ever since Mabel left her behind as a young girl. Another new experience is the doctor. Cora sees Dr. Campbell in the Griffin Building, who asks her questions about her ancestry and her health. He examines her whipping scars and the effects of her sexual assault; finally, he draws blood from her arm. Finally, Cora has to get used to money. Her one big purchase is a blue dress that she selects to wear to the social one night.

The social is a rare chance for Cora to catch up with Caesar, who works in a machine factory outside town. The two trade gossip and discuss the possibility of taking the next train on the Underground Railroad out of South Carolina. They had already decided against three trains in the time since they had arrived, and this one is no different. They agree to hold on to the security of their life in South Carolina, and enjoy the music and dancing for the rest of the night. The only event to mar the pleasant night happens after the social, as Cora walks back to her dormitories. A young woman in hysterics attracts a crowd as she screams that her babies are getting taken away. Cora reflects on how the ghosts of the plantation haunt them all.

At their meeting on Monday morning, Miss Lucy offers Cora a new job placement at the Museum of Natural Wonders. Cora is reluctant to leave the Andersons, as she has grown fond of the children, but she accepts. At the museum, she meets Mr. Fields, the curator of Living History, who introduces her to her new work. Cora acts in three exhibits with two other young women: in “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” as a captured slave on “Life on the Slave Ship,” and in the familiar role of a plantation slave in “Typical Day on the Plantation.” The exhibits are fine work in general, except for rude museum visitors. The exhibits, as well as a new hospital for the government doctor, are both part of the town’s efforts towards progress. Cora visits Dr. Stevens at the hospital, a new doctor from Boston. He suggests a birth control procedure to her that is mandatory for some women, former slaves who already have children or who are deemed “mentally unfit.” These policies make Cora uncomfortable. On the way home, she tries to visit to the Anderson children to say a proper goodbye, but the new girl who works there turns her away without letting her in. A few weeks later, Mr. Fields gives Cora and the other two museum workers a tour of the exhibits. Cora reflects on the inaccuracies of the slave exhibits; the world is so much more brutal than they depict. White people have stolen so much. Now Dr. Stevens’ surgeries promise to truly steal the future by taking away their babies.

Sam sends word that he wants to meet with Cora and Caesar. Before she heads to his home, Cora sneaks up to the roof of the Griffin Building, relishing the height and the chance to reflect. The town’s expansion stirs Cora’s dreams for her future. After twilight, it is safe to walk to Sam’s. Once there, Sam tells her and Caesar there is another train coming. They decline, but Sam says they may reconsider after they hear him out. At the pub recently, a doctor from Boston, Bertram, drunkenly disclosed to Sam that the government doctors are secretly conducting a study of syphilis on black men, who think they are receiving treatment for blood aliments. This is just one of many experiments, Betram told Sam: the goal of these experiments, and of the forced sterilization program, is to keep the black population of the United States under control. Cora and Caesar are horrified, and three debate how they can alert the town to these schemes. They reach no solution. Cora realizes the woman screaming about losing her babies after the social was not responding to the memories of the plantation, but to the current system.

At her job in the museum, Cora begins to give the evil eye to one patron a day, engaging a victim of her choice in a staring contest until they retreat. It is a small assertion of her power. The day after she learns about the town’s sinister schemes, one of the Anderson children, Maisie, comes to visit the museum. Cora stares at her cruelly until the girl runs. That evening, Cora goes to visit Miss Lucy. She asks about women who had been moved out of the dormitory for treatment for mental disorders. Miss Lucy says they have been moved away permanently. She encourages Cora once more to consider the birth control operation, and Cora tells her she can decide for herself. On her way out, she overhears another proctor ask Miss Lucy for records. Miss Lucy responds, telling the other proctor that she’s looked through the records, but they don’t have to drop everything for a slave catcher, and they don’t harbor murderers.

Cora runs to the men’s housing to alert Caesar, but he is still at the factory. Next she runs to the saloon to find Sam. He confirms that the slave catchers, led by Ridgeway, have arrived in the town and are after Cora and Caesar. She runs to Sam’s house through the woods to wait for him to find Caesar. He returns without Caesar, telling her that a slave catcher had come in right after she left the saloon and organized a posse. He will go back out to try to find Caesar, but they decide it would be best for Cora to wait down in the platform. Taking some food and a candle, she waits underground, contemplating a prayer until she falls asleep. She wakes up to the sound of a mob ransacking the house and finally setting it on fire.


The mood of Chapter 4 begins as peaceful and idyllic. Cora, who is living as Bessie, tends to the children for whom she nannies, and walks freely back to her dormitory, lingering to observe the hustle and bustle of a Friday afternoon on Main Street. These initial scenes are a departure from the previous chapters of the novel, and suggest Cora has found a good place to be. Yet the destruction of this idyll is soon foreshadowed. Cora uses an elevator in her new life to visit the children’s father in the Griffin Building, and her reaction is telling: she “never failed to be both delighted and frightened by its magic, bracing herself… in case of disaster.” Cora does not, however, take this same approach to her new life in South Carolina, and she will come to regret it.

Indeed, this first stop on the Underground Railroad for Cora illustrates an alternative but no less oppressive system of racial subjugation. First, black people may live as if they are free in South Carolina, but their actions and ways of life are carefully controlled and monitored by a paternalistic state. White proctors manufacture residential life in dormitories, provide regulated modes of social entertainment through dances, and orchestrate job placement. There is also the fundamental reality that black people are still slaves, owned by the South Carolina state government. Sam, the Underground Railroad station agent, calls this a “technicality,” but the fact of un-freedom signals something is amiss (92).

The more sinister programs of the government are foreshadowed with an increasingly ominous tone. After the social, a woman screams about the loss of her babies, but is assumed by Cora and others to be simply suffering from trauma from her memories of the plantation. It will soon become clear, however, that the South Carolina government is taking away black women’s children through forced sterilization programs. This episode also harkens back to the plantation: just as the South Carolina social ends with this woman’s distress, so too the joyful dancing on Jockey’s birthday was overshadowed by a violent spectacle. This parallelism continues to foreshadow the violence lurking beneath the surface in South Carolina. Although to Cora and Caesar that they have escaped the plantation, the text constantly leaves reminders that they will be proven wrong.

In the end, the most egregious aspects of the South Carolina system are the coercive program of birth control for black women, as well as a medical study of black men with syphilis that operates without their consent, simply letting them grow sicker and observing the effects of the disease. These are two examples of institutionalized racism that did, in fact, occur in the United States. Ideas about eugenics and racially informed population control plans led to forced sterilization programs on Native American, Mexican American, and African American women, among others. In addition, the Tuskegee Study took place in the United States from 1932 until 1972, whereby black men with syphilis were studied over the course of their sickness and often into death, while being denied treatment. This system is an example of the fantastical or speculative qualities of The Underground Railroad, reminding readers that it is not a work of historical fiction. Forced sterilization programs and the Tuskegee study both occurred primarily in the twentieth century in America, not in the antebellum period in which the novel takes place. Whitehead places these programs in South Carolina in the nineteenth century to create a jarring effect, confronting readers with a chilling synthesis of some of the totality of American racist history.

This chapter also provides a context in which Cora and Caesar navigate the terms of intimacy between them. Caesar tries to kiss Cora, and she declines, but is uncertain about her feelings towards him. They meet at the social and chastely discuss their lives, but Caesar also brings flowers for Cora. He eventually begins seeing another black woman in the town, and apologizes to Cora for doing so. Their time together ends before anything further develops, but readers and Cora both are left wondering what might have been. This foreshadows Cora’s love for Royal that comes later in the book, which is also cut short by racist violence.