The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6: North Carolina


The sixth chapter opens with Cora still trapped in the platform underneath Sam’s house. It has been one day since the house was set on fire. Cora has been alone with her nightmares, without food or water. She imagines Caesar’s capture over and over again, thinking about how it would be different if she had been with him. In that moment, she realizes she is a stray. After Ajarry and then Mabel, the line ends with Cora. Just as Cora is hit by this realization, though, the train rushes by. It passes her at first, and then backs up to reach the platform. The engineer driving the train is a teenager, surprised by Cora’s presence; the Georgia station is closed and North Carolina wasn’t meant to have passengers. He takes her onboard, though, and the train takes off, speeding northward.

Cora gets off at a station dug deep into the depths of a mountain. The young engineer is headed back south for maintenance, and leaves her there alone. She explores the station and the surrounding tunnel, but discovers she is boxed in, and falls asleep in fear. When she wakes up, the station agent, Martin Wells, appears. He appears nervous at the sight of Cora; the night patrollers are out on their search for fugitives. Martin leaves and returns with a wagon and two horses, and they set out for his house while it is still dark.

Martin pauses the cart and tells Cora to get out and look at their surroundings. The forest is full of corpses, all hung from trees. They showed the marks of torture and beatings. Martin tells her the road is called the “Freedom Trail.” They continue on to Martin’s house. When they arrive, Martin’s wife, Ethel, is waiting and upset by Cora. Nevertheless, Ethel leads Cora upstairs to a bath and then the attic. She instructs her to remain silent, or they will be turned in by either the maid, Ethel and Martin’s daughter, or her family. She seals Cora in the attic.

Cora watches the park across the street from a hole in the wall. The park bustles throughout the day with activity from the citizens of the town. She watches for a whole day before she realizes that everyone in view in the park is white. It seems there are no black people in North Carolina except the corpses hanging from trees in the forest. Cora continues watching the park as the townspeople set up for their “Friday Festival.” The festivities open with a band, then a short comedic performance in blackface, and a short play about a slave who tries to return to his master and is turned away because “North Carolina had changed.” The town enjoys each performance, applauding loudly. Finally, an authoritative man takes the stage and introduces himself as Jamison. Jamison then introduces a young recruit to the band of night riders, who made his first catch, a young black woman named Louisa. Jamison leaves Louisa cowering on stage, bloodied and filthy, as he gives his speech. North Carolina, he proclaims to the crowd, is forging a separate nation without black people. This is their duty, he tells the crowd, who rush to help put a noose around Louisa’s neck. Cora turns away just before Louisa hangs.

Martin explains the story of North Carolina to Cora. After a few violent slave rebellions, whites in the South feared the growing black population. The powerful men in North Carolina decided the best course of action would be to divert the hordes of poor immigrant Europeans—mostly Irish and Germans—to the southern states instead of the northern ones. Whites, not blacks, would pick cotton. North Carolina proceeded to abolish black people: selling slaves further south and massacring free blacks. Any whites caught helping a black person were hung. Each local town had its own weekly Friday Festival to hang runaways on display. There is no way to escape, Martin explains to Cora: his wagon would be stopped at a checkpoint before they could make it to the Railroad station.

Cora settles into her nook in the attic; watching the park, reading, trying to survive the boiling heat. No word comes from the Underground Railroad. Martin cautions Cora against running away: it would end in death for all of them. So Cora stays in the attic nook, sitting in silence when Martin and Ethel’s Irish maid, Fiona, is in the house. She spends her time in reflection, thinking about the wave of Irish immigrants whose labor has replaced that of black slaves in North Carolina. Cora imagines that after Irish labor runs out, a new wave of immigrants will replace them. Cotton needs to be picked.

Cora imagines her life in freedom: a house with children and a husband. Caesar would come around to visit and tell the children stories. Once, she imagines finding her mother begging in the street, and in her fantasy, kicks Mabel’s beggar cup and continues on her way. It occurs to Cora that she is the type of black person North Carolina fears: a murderer. She does not regret killing the boy in the woods in self-defense during her escape. One day the violence white people inflicted would come back to haunt them.

After a few months in the attic, a series of bad omens unfold. First, Cora knocks over her chamber pot when Fiona is in the house, making a loud noise. Martin and Ethel become even more nervous. They are unlikely abolitionists: Martin inherited the cause from his father, Donald. Donald never expressed his abolitionist opinions to his son in life, but in death, left him a trove of abolitionist literature and a map of the underground railroad with instructions to continue the cause. The second bad omen is a close call when the night riders search the house. The patrollers head up to the attic but don’t search Cora’s nook. Cora hopes this means the house won’t be searched again for a while. She thinks of the town—indeed, the whole state—as prisoners like she is: shackled by their fear.

The night after the patrollers visit Martin and Ethel’s house, Cora takes ill. Cora is delirious with fever for days. Martin and Ethel are forced to give Fiona the week off so they can care for Cora. Ethel brings her down into the spare bedroom and nurses her back to health, reading from the Bible. When Cora is a bit better, she and Ethel debate over whether the Bible condones slavery. Next, Cora reads the almanacs. When Cora is healthy again, she plans to return the nook in the attic.

On her last night in the downstairs bedroom, however, the night riders come knocking again. Cora tries to hide under the bed but they find her almost immediately, tossing her down the stairs onto the house’s porch as they restrain Martin and Ethel. Fiona runs up to collect her reward: she was the one to turn them in. The crowd watches: the commotion has interrupted the town’s Friday Festival. Ridgeway appears and claims Cora as his own under the Fugitive Slave Law. Jamison protests Ridgeway’s intervention in the town’s justice, but the slave catcher wins. He and his gang shackle Cora to her wagon and drive away. The last thing she sees in the town is Martin and Ethel tied to the hanging tree.


This sixth chapter casts Cora once more as a lonely individual, in opposition to the dangers of community. In South Carolina, Cora adapted comfortably into a community, and she was betrayed by it. Now that those illusions are destroyed, Cora must face the reality of being alone again. Alone at the platform beneath Sam’s burning house, Cora reclaims the label she was assigned long ago on the Randall plantation: a stray. Hiding in Martin and Ethel’s attic, too, she is alone, a stray human that can only watch the activities of the townspeople from behind a secret window.

The theme of the individual versus the community is further explored as Cora begins to observe the town where she hides. The park across the street from the house provides a dark window into North Carolina society. Although at first the town seems happy and bustling, the park active throughout the day, Cora soon realizes there is something off: she only sees white people. She soon learns North Carolina has embarked on a program of genocide, trying to rid the state of black people altogether. Cora realizes the community that previously seemed warm and cohesive is actually united only by its fear of black people. Whitehead demonstrates that a united community can turn ugly.

In the end, the community breaks down. The narrator describes how townspeople use false accusations of harboring or helping runaway slaves to wreak vengeance for petty grievances or jealousies. The town is not actually bound together by fear; instead, they use the very system they have created to drive them apart. In creating the North Carolina of The Underground Railroad, Whitehead again blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality. American history is, in fact, shaped by white fear: a number of slave revolts throughout the course of slavery led to increased attempts at enforced order and subjugation. A significant source of fear for white Southerners, however, were the slave rebellions happening on a larger, more violent scale in the Caribbean; particularly the revolt in Haiti that established an independent black nation. In addition, nothing on the scale of North Carolina’s attempted genocide actually happened in American history. However, this fiction provides a chilling foil for reality. Black slaves built America, just as the conductor, Lumbly, reminds Cora in the second chapter. Yet that labor is too often rendered invisible by the nation’s selective memory. The fictional attempt to literally erase blackness from North Carolina mimics that tragedy.

The version of reality depicted in North Carolina is a particularly virulent strain of racism. Indeed, unlike the fictional South Carolina society, where racist oppression is hidden beneath a veneer of paternalistic beneficence, this violence lives out in the open. Despite this difference, however, the society Cora encounters in this chapter simply represents another way America could have gone. By including these different fictionalized accounts of American racism, Whitehead suggests these realities are within the realm of possibility; a damning portrayal of the nation.