Featuring South African actress Thuso Mbedu as Cora (pictured here), the adaptation arrives amid a national reckoning on systemic injustice, as well as a renewed debate over cultural depictions of violence against Black bodies.

The True Story of ‘The Underground Railroad’

The adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel reimagines the eponymous trail to freedom as an actual train track

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Featuring South African actress Thuso Mbedu as Cora (pictured here), the adaptation arrives amid a national reckoning on systemic injustice, as well as a renewed debate over cultural depictions of violence against Black bodies. (Kyle Kaplan / Amazon Studios)
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM | May 13, 2021, 7 a.m.

When Cora, the fictional protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, steps onto a boxcar bound for the North, the train’s conductor offers her a wry word of advice: “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”

Peering through the carriage’s slats, Cora sees “only darkness, mile after mile,” Whitehead writes. Later, toward the end of her harrowing escape from enslavement, the teenager realizes that the conductor’s comment was a “joke … from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

Set in antebellum America, Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book envisions the Underground Railroad not as a network of abolitionists and safe houses, but as an actual train, with subterranean stations staffed by covert activists snaking north to freedom. Darkness pervades this alternative reality, which finds Cora and Caesar, a young man enslaved on the same Georgia plantation as her, using the railroad to find freedom. In each state the train stops, Whitehead places a new, insidious manifestation of racism before his characters.

The Underground Railroad,” a ten-part limited series out this week from Amazon Prime Video, offers Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ interpretation of Whitehead’s acclaimed work. Featuring South African actress Thuso Mbedu as Cora, Aaron Pierre as Caesar and Joel Edgerton as the slave catcher Ridgeway, the adaptation arrives amid a national reckoning on systemic injustice, as well as a renewed debate over cultural depictions of violence against Black bodies.

Jenkins—like Whitehead in the series’ source material—adopts an unflinching approach to the portrayal of slavery. As writer Camonghne Felix details in Vanity Fair, Jenkins refuses to allow “Black trauma [to] be the guiding vehicle of this story.” Instead, his narrative is one of “Black victory.”

“In a very nuanced way, even amidst the trauma, the people, the characters still retain their humanity. And because of that, I think their personhood remains intact,” Jenkins tells Felix. “The condition of slavery is not a thing that’s fixed or static or that has fidelity to them as persons. These things are being visited upon them.”

Here’s what you need to know about the historical context that undergirds the novel and streaming adaption ahead of “The Underground Railroad”’s May 14 debut. (Spoilers for the novel ahead.)

Did Colson Whitehead base The Underground Railroad on a true story?

In Whitehead’s own words, his novel seeks to convey “the truth of things, not the facts.” His characters are all fictional, and the book’s plot, while grounded in historical truths, is similarly imagined in episodic form. (The book follows Cora’s flight to freedom, detailing her protracted journey from Georgia to the Carolinas, Tennessee and Indiana. Each step of the trip poses unique dangers beyond Cora’s control, and many of the individuals she encounters meet violent ends.)

The Underground Railroad’s biggest departure from history is its portrayal of the eponymous network as a literal rather than metaphorical transport system. As Whitehead told NPR in 2016, this change was inspired by his “childhood notion” of the Underground Railroad as a “literal subway beneath the earth”—a surprisingly common misconception.

Charles T. Webber's 1893 painting of the Underground Railroad
Charles T. Webber's 1893 painting of the Underground Railroad (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In truth, says Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Eric Foner, the Underground Railroad consisted of “local networks of anti-slavery people, both Black and white, who assisted fugitives in various ways,” from raising funds for the abolitionist cause to taking cases to court to hiding runaways in safe houses. The name’s exact origins are unclear, but it was in wide use by the early 1840s. For decades, academic historians dismissed the Underground Railroad’s significance, some doubting its existence and others placing white men at the center of the action.

Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, says the Underground Railroad is more accurately described as the “Abolitionist Underground,” since the people running in it “were not just ordinary, well-meaning Northern white citizens, [but] activists, particularly in the free Black community.” These “conductors” helped runaways, especially in the North, where the railroad was most active, but as Foner points out, “most of the initiative, most of the danger, was on the shoulders of the Black people who were running away.”

An 1894 photograph of Harriet Jacobs, who hid in an attic for nearly seven years after escaping enslavement
An 1894 photograph of Harriet Jacobs, who hid in an attic for nearly seven years after escaping enslavement (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, circa 1847–1852
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, circa 1847–1852 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Foner says that Whitehead builds on “recognizable historical moments and patterns” in a manner similar to the late Toni Morrison. The author conducted extensive research before writing his novel, drawing on oral histories provided by survivors of slavery in the 1930s, runaway ads published in antebellum newspapers, and accounts penned by successful escapees like Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass.

These influences are evident in Cora’s journey, notes Sinha. Douglass made his way north by jumping onto a moving train and posing as a free man, while Jacobs spent nearly seven years hiding in an attic; Cora escapes enslavement on a rail line and spends several months hiding in an abolitionist’s attic.

“The more you know about this history, the more you can appreciate what Whitehead is doing in merging the past and the present, or maybe merging the history of slavery with what happened after the end of slavery,” says Foner, who authored the 2015 book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

What time period does The Underground Railroad cover?

Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and Cora (Thuso Mbedu)
Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and Cora (Thuso Mbedu) think they've found a safe haven in South Carolina, but a belief in white supremacy belies their new acquaintances' actions. (Kyle Kaplan / Amazon Studios)

The Underground Railroad takes place around 1850, the year of the Fugitive Slave Act’s passage. It makes explicit mention of the draconian legislation, which sought to ensnare runaways who’d settled in free states and inflict harsh punishments on those who assisted escapees. Designed to discourage the Underground Railroad, the act instead galvanized—and radicalized—the abolitionist movement, according to Foner and Sinha. As one white character snidely remarks, the law “says we have to hand over runaways and not impede their capture—not drop everything we’re doing just because some slave catcher thinks he’s onto his bounty.”

While Whitehead used 1850 as a “sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang,” per NPR, he was less concerned with chronology than conveying a sense of the lived experience of Black Americans. “The book is rebooting every time the person goes to a different state,” the author explained. “[This approach] allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850—skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization.”

Cora’s journey to freedom is laden with implicit references to touchstones in post-emancipation history, from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study of the mid-20th century to white mobs’ attacks on prosperous Black communities like Wilmington, North Carolina (targeted in 1898), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (razed in 1921). This “chronological jumble,” says Spencer Crew, former president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and emeritus director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, serves as a reminder that the “end of slavery does not bring about the end of racism and racial attacks. … These issues continue to survive in different forms, with parallel impacts upon the African American community.”

What real-life events does The Underground Railroad dramatize?

At first glance, Whitehead’s imagined South Carolina appears to be a progressive haven where abolitionists offer newly freed people education and employment. But as Cora and Caesar soon realize, their new acquaintances’ belief in white superiority belies their honeyed words. (In 20th-century America, eugenicists and proponents of scientific racism often expressed sentiments similar to ones uttered by these fictional characters.) Chatting with a white barkeep who moonlights as an Underground Railroad conductor, a drunk doctor reveals a plan for his Black patients: “With strategic sterilization—first the women but both sexes in time—we could free them from bondage without fear that they’d butcher us in our sleep.”

The doctor continues, “Controlled sterilization, [unethical] research into communicable diseases, the perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit—was it any wonder the best medical talents in the country were flocking to South Carolina?”

North Carolina, meanwhile, exists in Whitehead’s world as an all-white state that has banned slavery, as well as the mere presence of any Black residents—a dystopia that echoes 19th-century Oregon. The state entered the Union in 1859 and abolished slavery within its borders, but explicitly wrote the exclusion of Black people into its state constitution, only repealing these racist restrictions in the 1920s.

Tuskegee patient getting his blood drawn in the mid-20th century
Whitehead's imagined version of South Carolina echoes the unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Pictured here is a Tuskegee patient getting his blood drawn in the mid-20th century. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In The Underground Railroad, white immigrants perform the tasks previously carried out by enslaved people in North Carolina, working off the debts of their “travel, tools and lodging” as indentured servants before proudly taking their place in American society. Black people are barred from stepping foot in the state, and those who violate this law—including the many formerly enslaved individuals who lack the resources to leave North Carolina—are lynched in weekly public ceremonies. The “Freedom Trail,” a road filled with the corpses of murdered Black people, extends “as far as there [are] bodies to feed it,” according to the railroad conductor who hides Cora in his attic.

Toward the end of the novel, Cora travels to a farm in Indiana after narrowly escaping the slave catcher Ridgeway. Owned by a free Black man named John Valentine, the tract of land houses a thriving community of runaways and free Black people who seemingly live peacefully alongside white settlers. Before long, however, tensions come to a head, with residents disagreeing over whether they should continue harboring escapees at great risk to the rest of the community or “put an end to relations with the railroad, the endless stream of needy [people], and ensure the longevity of the farm.” On the night of a final debate between the two sides, a mob of white outsiders attacks the farm, burning it to the ground and indiscriminately murdering innocent bystanders.

“Cora had come to cherish the impossible treasures of the Valentine farm so completely that she’d forgotten how impossible they were,” writes Whitehead in the book. “The farm and the adjacent ones operated by colored interests were too big, too prosperous. A pocket of blackness in the young state.”

In 1921, white Tulsans razed the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood, killing some 300 people. Pictured here are the ruins of the neighborhood
In 1921, white Tulsans razed the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood, killing some 300 people. The Underground Railroad details a similar (imagined) attack on an Indiana farm. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As Tim Madigan reported for Smithsonian magazine earlier this year, a similar series of events unfolded in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa—informally known as “Black Wall Street”—in June 1921. Threatened by Black residents’ success, some 10,000 white Tulsans brutally attacked Greenwood, killing as many as 300 people and razing the prosperous neighborhood to the ground. The massacre was far from an isolated incident, noted Madigan: “In the years leading to 1921, white mobs murdered African Americans on dozens of occasions, in Chicago, Atlanta, Duluth, Charleston and elsewhere.”

Whitehead’s inclusion of events that postdate the end of slavery underscores the institution’s “pernicious and long-reaching tentacles,” says Sinha.

“He’s showing you the range of possibilities,” adds Foner, “what freedom might really mean, or [what] are the limits on freedom coming after slavery?”

Foner says, “[The book] is about … the legacy of slavery, the way slavery has warped the whole society.”

How does The Underground Railroad reflect the lived experience of slavery?

When working on the novel, Whitehead reportedly asked himself “How can I make a psychologically credible plantation?” Instead of portraying “a pop culture plantation where there’s one Uncle Tom and everyone is just really helpful to each other,” he told the Guardian, the author chose to think “about people who’ve been traumatized, brutalized and dehumanized their whole lives.”

Whitehead added, “Everyone is going to be fighting for the one extra bite of food in the morning, fighting for the small piece of property. To me, that makes sense; if you put people together who’ve been raped and tortured, that’s how they would act.”

Abandoned as a child by her mother, who is seemingly the only enslaved person to successfully escape Ridgeway’s clutches, Cora lives in the Hob, a derelict building reserved for outcasts—“those who had been crippled by the overseers’ punishments, … who had been broken by the labor in ways you could see and in ways you could not see, [and] who had lost their wits,” as Whitehead describes them.

Mbedu stars as Cora (center). Zsane Jhe, left, and Aubriana Davis, right, portray other women enslaved on the Randall plantation.
Mbedu stars as Cora (center). Zsane Jhe, left, and Aubriana Davis, right, portray women enslaved on the Randall plantation alongside Cora. (Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios)

One night, during a rare celebration marking an older enslaved man’s birthday, Cora protects a young boy who inadvertently spills a drop of wine on their enslaver’s sleeve. The man beats her with his silver cane, and the following morning, the plantation’s overseer delivers a lashing “under the pitiless boughs of the whipping tree.” A few weeks later, Cora agrees to join Caesar in his flight to freedom, pushed past the point of endurance by her punishment and the bleakness of her continued life under enslavement.

The Underground Railroad “really gives a sense of the kind of power that enslavers hold over those who are enslaved and the kinds of resistance that the enslaved try to [mount under these] conditions,” says Crew. Those who escaped faced the prospect of brutal punishment, he adds, “so it’s a very treacherous, dangerous decision that people have to make carefully.”

By selecting Cora as his main character, Whitehead touches on issues that affected enslaved women, specifically, including the threat of rape and pain of bearing a child only to see them sold into enslavement elsewhere. The book’s description of Cora’s sexual assault is heartbreakingly succinct, stating, “The Hob women sewed her up.”

“[Whitehead] writes about it really effectively, with a modicum of words, but really evoking the horror of life as an enslaved woman,” says Sinha. “It’s not as if every enslaved woman was raped, abused or harassed, but they were constantly under the threat of it. That was their lived reality.”

William Jackson Harper of "The Good Place" (left) portrays Royal, a free Black man who rescues Cora from the slave catcher Randall.
William Jackson Harper of "The Good Place" (left) portrays Royal, a free Black man who rescues Cora from the slave catcher Randall. (Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios)

Sinha argues that the novelist’s depiction of the Underground Railroad “gets to the heart of how this enterprise was both extremely daring and extremely dangerous.” Conductors and runaways, she says, “could be betrayed at any moment, [finding themselves] in situations not of [their] making.” Cora, for her part, aptly summarizes escapees’ liminal status. Locked in an abolitionist’s attic for months on end, she thinks, “What a world it is … that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web?”

Cora continues, “Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.”

Crew says he hopes the new Amazon adaptation emphasizes the psychological toll of slavery instead of simply depicting the physical abuse endured by enslaved individuals.

“If you have to talk about the punishment, I would like to see it off-screen,” he says. “It may be that I’ve read this for too many years, and so I’m very much scarred by it. And it may be important for those who have no sense of [slavery’s brutality] to see that, but my … perception of it is that it feels a little bit gratuitous. There are other ways of portraying the horrors and the painfulness of enslavement.”

Speaking with the New York Times earlier this month, Jenkins, the director of the streaming series, outlined his approach to the project, which addresses Crew’s concerns. “I realized that my job was going to be pairing the violence with its psychological effects—not shying away from the visual depiction of these things but focusing on what it means to the characters,” he said. “How are they beating it back? How are they making themselves whole?”

About the Author: Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's assistant digital editor, humanities. Website: meilansolly.com. Read more articles from Meilan Solly and

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