The Underground Railroad: Pathways, Leadership & the Role of Equity

This post is adapted from remarks MDC President David Dodson made on February 4 in Tempe, Arizona, to an audience of community college presidents, faculty, and administrators gathered for the American Association of Community College’s Pathways Project annual institute.

As I considered my remarks for today, my thoughts went to an extraordinary new novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. It is a magical work. The historic Underground Railroad was a series of well-concealed way stations that gave sanctuary to enslaved Africans fleeing to freedom in the North. In Whitehead’s tale, the Railroad becomes an actual subterranean rail line, a marvel of technical engineering that literally burrows under the slave states of the antebellum South—a pathway to safety and salvation, complete with actual locomotives and rail cars.

As described by Whitehead, the Railroad itself is a work of genius:

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus (pg. 67).

But the path is still not easy for those who view it as the one great hope for their liberation. Rules of passage are mysterious—opaque for people who have spent their lives in the closed and cruel system of slavery on plantations. Trap doors and dead ends make the path perilous. For those who do get on the Railroad, like the novel’s heroine, Cora, the danger of being captured and returned to the plantation—and to violent punishment—is a constant reality.

Cora is a young woman who has been brutalized in captivity. She is a third generation of her family to live in slavery. Her mother has run off from the plantation to seek her own freedom, leaving Cora to raise herself. Given a life of abandonment, forced to survive on the plantation by her own wit and native intelligence, Cora is relentless in her pursuit of freedom. She has escaped the plantation with Caesar, a brave fellow, also enslaved, who has seen glimpses of the wider world beyond the plantation and knows both the delights of freedom and the dangers involved in securing it. But Caesar is killed in a skirmish with a notorious slave catcher sent to find the duo. From that point, Cora persists to get to the railroad alone. By turns hopeful, terrified, confused she makes her way doggedly, alone.

For Cora, the beautifully engineered path of the railroad is a strange gift. Nothing in her life has prepared her to navigate it. Throughout the novel, she is truly dependent on the kindness of strangers, like station agents and conductors, to get to safety. Station agents, who shepherd escapees to railway stops, pair their knowledge of the path with their courageous spirit to help the enslaved enter the pathway to the freedom. Conductors rely on their own lived experience and geographic expertise to lead the train away from the cruel system of slavery and toward a land where survival and autonomy could become Cora’s reality.

The book follows Cora on her journey north from Georgia. The first stop on the railroad is South Carolina, a state that looks like the Promised Land, but in fact is a twilight zone of deception and cleverly concealed brutality. The next stop, North Carolina, possesses a culture of raw cruelty, where public lynchings are the occasions for picnics and band concerts in the town square. On Cora’s pathway to freedom, nothing is what it seems. Hope appears and then vanishes as each stopping point becomes a perverse mutation of the cruelty Cora has escaped on the plantation.

The Underground Railroad is about the unconquerable, existential human drive for the dignity of a better life. It is about the essential role that a brilliantly engineered salvific pathway plays to deliver a young woman to freedom and the fulfillment of her dreams. It is about the station agents and fellow travelers without whose leadership, courage, guidance, and wisdom Cora’s aspirations and even the pathway itself would have been insufficient to deliver a young enslaved girl to the threshold of freedom. It is, in many ways, a metaphor, for all that our work advancing equity and opportunity in the South requires.

The Underground Railroad speaks to me not just as a metaphor and as a literary work. It also is part of my personal story. My great-great grandfather, Stanton Hunton, with whom I am pictured here at the museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad in Chatham, Ontario, used the actual Underground Railroad to escape slavery in Virginia in the 1840s. Stanton’s story is worthy of a novel, itself, including two unsuccessful escape attempts before he managed to achieve (the Promised Land of) Canada, put his skills as a brick mason and carpenter to work for himself, and start a family. His story was the beginning of the mobility story of my father’s family.

Every family has a mobility story. And today the narrative of upward economic mobility and liberation is unquestionably dependent on attaining a postsecondary credential that prepares its holder to access, navigate, and advance within employment that offers meaningful, living-wage work. Like Cora and the Underground Railroad, the pathway from foundational education to a postsecondary credential to living-wage employment, even when brilliantly engineered, is fraught with pitfalls, trapdoors, headwinds, and rip-currents. Success in navigating the pathway requires the vigilant engagement of others at every step of the way, others who are committed to equity outcomes for each and every traveler.

And while Cora’s story offers a tale of overcoming, it also offers a caution. The Underground Railroad was a beautifully engineered system for ushering people to freedom. But its engineering was compromised by a surrounding culture that was not supportive of and, in fact, often hostile toward, people making the journey. In the absence of a fully supportive culture, Cora’s success depended on a high degree of personal heroism on her part that exacted a very high cost. The best engineered strategy for success along the pathway to upward economic mobility will run aground unless it is supported by a reinforcing culture of equity across the institutions that touch it. Otherwise the burden of success requires an unreasonable level of heroism on the part of individuals trying to make their way forward. And the cost of heroism can be toxic.

A few years ago, a deeply disturbing conversation ran across several issues of the alumni magazine of my college. Under the banner “My Classmates are Dying” was a dialogue carried out through letters to the editor of the alarmingly high, statistically significant rates of premature death by illness and even suicide of black men who had attended Yale College in the 1960s, when the university, an overwhelmingly white institution, began to open its doors seriously to men of color. (There were no women at Yale until the 1970s.) Death rates for African American alumni in the class of 1970 were three times that of whites in the same class. Scholars looking at these data and noting the physiological stresses associated with black men trying to advance in an often inhospitable culture made links to the phenomenon known as “John Henryism,” so named by the brilliant scholar of public health, Sherman James. According to legend, John Henry was one of the “steel drivers” who hammered down spikes used in the railroad expansion that made America big and rich. With the coming of the steam-powered drill, the livelihoods of the steel drivers like Henry were threatened. Henry, full of bluster, challenged the owner of the railroad to a contest pitting Henry against the new drill. Henry won the contest, but he died from the mental and physical strain.

John Henryism reminds us of the unacceptable personal burdens that fall on underrepresented people trying to navigate a culture where a commitment to equity is not pervasive. The price of success can be a harrowing journey like Cora’s or even life itself like the pioneers before me at Yale. And it persists. Just last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article about first-generation Latino college students who were able to obtain Social Security numbers that would allow them to lawfully work, drive, and pursue an affordable postsecondary credential, through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA.) The title of the article, “The Only Way We Can Fight Back is to Excel,” hit me in the gut. Excel at what cost? Like Cora? Like the Yale men?

We need less personal heroism and more equity and systematic support if the pathways we are dedicated to building are to deliver on their promise: Equity at every turn, for every individual on the path to opportunity. This work has existential importance for our young people and our institutions and our nation. Let’s let nothing stand in its way.