February 2017 Bar Bulletin
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Reading ‘The Underground Railroad’ in Historical Context

HeinOnline’s ‘Slavery
in America’ Database



Colson Whitehead won the 2016 National Book Award for his novel The Underground Railroad. The novel tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia in the 1850s. She bears the enmity of both the plantation owners and her fellow slaves because her mother, Mabel, is the only person to have ever escaped from the plantation.

After Mabel vanishes in the middle of the night, Cora is without friends or protectors on the plantation. When a new slave named Cesar arrives on the plantation, Cora initially hesitates at his suggestion that they try to escape. After a brutal assault, she agrees to join Cesar in his flight to freedom.

Whitehead’s wide-ranging narrative weaves historical facts into his fictionalized account of Cora’s journey. While it is clear that the book is painstakingly researched, so much of what is described in the book seems too incredible to have any real connection to historical fact. Some of this is intentional.

For example, in Whitehead’s imaginings, the Underground Railroad is an actual, working railroad buried deep beneath the ground, crisscrossing the slave states. It is run by a loosely organized group of white and black abolitionists and ranges from crates on tracks to full-fledged rail cars.

Other facets are clearly based on true historical occurrences. Cora and Cesar first land in South Carolina where they both find work and a bit of peace in a seemingly progressive town. This peace is shattered when they discover that the social programs are really concerted campaigns to sterilize and perform medical experiments upon them and the other black residents of the community. Clearly, the kernel of this episode is based on the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and various sterilization campaigns.

As I was reading the book, the researcher in me wanted to find out more about the events Whitehead was describing. Were they fully imagined like his literal underground railroad or historically accurate like the Tuskegee experiments? As luck would have it, when I was about halfway through the book, Hein Online notified the Law Library that its new database, “Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture & Law,” is now included in our subscription.

According to HeinOnline, the database includes:

… every statute passed by every colony and state on slavery, every federal statute dealing with slavery, and all reported state and federal cases on slavery. Our cases go into the 20th century, because long after slavery was ended, there were still court cases based on issues emanating from slavery.

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