African-American history is about the celebration of black history and culture. While there are a great many African-Americans in our history that risked their lives to oppose laws and constructs that prevented racial equality, there are some black people in our history that we discuss simply because of their effects on our culture and the inspiration their existence has given us.
The same is true of John Henry, a steel driver, believed to have been born a slave sometime in the 1840s or ’50s. While his story is arguably legend only, his tale stands as a monument of inspiration for black Americans as one of our first role models. Following emancipation, John and his wife leave the plantations for the western frontier looking for jobs and a place to settle; there, they happen upon a crew laying track for the C&O railroad. Each man on the crew is promised 50 acres of land on the opposite side of the Alleghany Mountains if they can complete the job by the deadline. Because John stood over six feet tall, a giant in those days, and a former field hand used to extreme outdoor conditions, he was perfect for the job.
Quickly the legend around him grew. As the deadline drew closer, men and task masters from other crews began to use steam-powered drills to complete the laying of the train tracks and the digging out of the rock of the mountain. These machines took away the jobs the crews, comprised of mostly African-Americans and immigrants, needed to earn land for shelter and food and creating a livelihood in the west. Seeing the plight of the workers, John challenged the machine to a contest. The story goes that John won that contest, armed with two sledgehammers, but died shortly after from exhaustion.
John Henry’s true origin has been debated by many scholars, but the general consensus sets the story in West Virginia and the forging of the Big Bend Tunnel, where a towering statue of John Henry stands to this day. I was inspired to write about John Henry because, not only is he a black American icon about whom I was relatively ignorant, but thanks to my son, I was enlightened by. He saw a Disney video about John Henry that in turn inspired him to learn more about our culture and other icons about which we hear very little during this month of recognition.
The primary question seems to be if John Henry was a real person. As with Paul Bunyan, the establishment of the glorified west is forged with the tales of Herculean giants clearing forests with one fell swoop and drilling through mountains with only a steady hand and a 20-pound sledgehammer. But it doesn’t really matter whether John Henry actually beat a machine to the other side of a mountain. It is the hope and inspiration this tale provides for African-Americans. John dedicated his life to a cause; he gave it so that others could pass on through–literally. The fact that his sacrifice contributed to a tunnel through which thousands of people travel daily only enhances the legend and the weight of that sacrifice. He is now immortalized at the entrance to that tunnel.
Watch the video that inspired my son and me, Disney’s An American Legend, narrated by none other than James Earl Jones. I know you’ll find it as fascinating as we did.