Summary and Analysis
Cora’s rescuers, led by a freeborn black man named Royal, take her through the underground railroad to a farm in Indiana. Royal and his partner Red had been in Tennessee to rescue Justin, another escaped slave who is the third man traveling with them. When Royal had seen Cora in Ridgeway’s custody, he had delayed their journey back to Indiana to rescue her as well.
Upon arriving in Indiana, Cora takes up residence at a farm owned by John Valentine, a light-skinned African man who uses his white appearance to improve the plight of Africans in America. Cora works on the farm just as she used to work on the Randall plantation, but now she does so as a free woman. She also goes to school with the children on the farm and with former slaves seeking an education.
The farm community is made up of a variety of blacks, including freeborn blacks, those who have purchased their freedom or been released, and runaways such as Cora. John and his wife, Gloria (whose freedom he purchased after meeting her on a plantation), decided to dedicate their farm to abolition work after an escaped slave near death appeared on their doorstep. Gloria acts as the matron of the farm while John is away on business.
Most fugitives who pass through the farm continue on to Canada or elsewhere once they have healed and prepared for their next journey. Cora asks everyone she can find if they have encountered her mother, thinking that perhaps Mabel traveled through Valentine on her way north. No one remembers Mabel. Cora wonders if she herself should continue north, but just as in South Carolina, she is reluctant to leave a place that finally feels comfortable.
Cora begins falling in love with Royal, who continues to work for the underground railroad using the Valentine farm as a home base. He shows obvious interest in her, and although he talks of marrying her, she never admits her interest in return. One day he takes her to a nearby abandoned station of the underground railroad. This tunnel is too small to fit a locomotive; instead, it has a small handcar on the track. Royal tells her that he isn’t sure where the track leads.
Sam, the station agent from South Carolina, appears on the Valentine farm. He explains that, though his house was destroyed, he escaped north and continued working with the underground railroad. He even posed as a slave catcher in order to get captured runaways out of jail and help them continue north. Sam brings news that Terrance Randall has died. He also tells Cora that, since she escaped from Ridgeway in Tennessee, Ridgeway’s reputation has shriveled.
The Valentine community hosts weekly meetings that include feasting, dancing, and special presentations from musicians, poets, and public speakers. One of these speakers, Elijah Lander, comes regularly and gets into arguments with a Valentine resident named Mingo. Mingo, who bought his and his family’s freedom, doesn’t like that Valentine harbors fugitive slaves; he worries the presence of people such as Cora is making whites angry. Lander argues idealistically that everyone ought to be free, and therefore everyone should be welcome at Valentine. Mingo decides to organize a debate between himself and Lander.
On the night of the debate, a group of white vigilantes interrupts Lander’s speech and kills him. They ransack the farm and set fire to the farmhouse, killing or capturing everyone they find. Royal is fatally shot; with his final words, he tells Cora to go to the abandoned underground railroad station and find out where it leads. Cora starts to escape, but Ridgeway and Homer catch her. Homer tells Ridgeway, who is obsessed with finding the underground railroad, that he overheard Royal talking to Cora about a tunnel.
Throughout this chapter, Cora’s catastrophic departure from Valentine is foreshadowed. Toward the end of the chapter, these forecasts are obvious: The narrator references the “final gathering on Valentine farm” and its “survivors.” However, more subtle moments of foreshadowing precede these. Royal takes Cora to the abandoned underground railroad station and admits that he doesn’t know where it leads. He tells Cora that perhaps she will be the one who finds out. Although Cora’s immediate response to Royal is that she doesn’t want to run anymore, her reply hints at an ironic opposite for readers: that she will be forced to run again and find out where this tunnel leads. After all, her internal debate over whether or not to keep traveling on from Indiana is much like the debate she had with herself in South Carolina, suggesting that the outcome this time will be the same: She will stay as long as she can, until fate forces her out.
Why does Cora insist on staying at Valentine, just as she insisted on staying in South Carolina, despite the danger? Here, the opportunity to leave is even more compelling than it was in South Carolina. Royal offers to travel with her to Canada, a place where she can finally be completely safe from Ridgeway’s reach. Moreover, because of opinions such as Mingo’s, Cora’s ability to remain at Valentine is already under threat. Yet Cora’s desire to stop running is also more intense than it was previously. As she did in South Carolina, Cora carries the legacy of her mother and grandmother, an insatiable desire to find a place where she can remain and belong.
The debate between Mingo and Lander one again raises the tension between showing compassion and avoiding unnecessary risk. Lander’s argument that everyone must be welcomed at Valentine is compassionate, but even Cora recognizes that it is vague and might not be pragmatic. On the other hand, Mingo’s plan to include only legally free people at Valentine will exclude fugitives such as Cora but is more likely to guarantee the safety of those who stay. For Cora, Lander’s stance seems preferable. And yet the raid on the farm proves that Mingo was “right” at least in one sense.
The tension in Valentine mirrors a larger debate among free African Americans in antebellum America over the value of “respectability.” Some people argued that if freeborn and legally freed Africans learned to conduct themselves as respected members of white society, they could prove to white Americans that African races were not inferior to white ones and thus improve treatment for all blacks (and especially for themselves). Other people countered that playing by white society’s rules was a way of reaffirming the merit of those rules. If the only “respectable” Africans whom white folks met were those who were legally free, they might assume that the legal system was already doing an adequate job of determining who ought to be free or enslaved. This would make free blacks just as complicit in the system of slavery as free white folks were.
This second view was the stance held by active voices in the abolition movement, and, like Lander’s voice, these voices were viewed as a threat by the white establishment. One of the reasons that many Southern states feared the education of blacks was that it increased the likelihood of intelligent, articulate, antiestablishment voices like Lander’s being developed and heard. As a person on Valentine remarks to Cora, “Master said the only thing more dangerous than a nigger with a gun…was a nigger with a book.”