Of uncertain historicity but undeniable cultural importance is the story of John Henry, the steel-driving man.
He was an African American railroad worker who became a folk hero among the poor thanks to his earthy nature, physical prowess, and dramatic struggle against the machinery slowly replacing laborers like him.
The role of a steel-driving man is to hammer a steel drill into solid rock so that explosives can be inserted into the holes for the clearing out and construction of railroad tunnels. John Henry’s story is traditionally dated to sometime in the later half of the 19th century, at a time when manual steel-drivers were being replaced by faster, more efficient steam-powered drilling machines- the precursors to modern jackhammers and pneumatic drills.
John worked with his hands and his hammer however, and he was known for his speed and strength. As the story goes, during the construction of one railroad tunnel, a race was arranged between John and one of the steam-powered drills being used. John Henry pushed his body to its limits and won the race, but died just past the finish line as his heart gave out, hammer still gripped in his hand.
It is unclear exactly where or when John Henry won that tunnel race, if it did occur. Theories offered by various researchers over the years have suggested Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia in 1870-72, Lewis Tunnel, Virginia in 1873, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel, Alabama in 1877.
Many of these theories place John Henry as a former slave, or the son of a slave, or alternatively as a work-release laborer attached to a local prison. Other claims made over the years place the tunnel and Henry’s contest in other states such as Kentucky, or places as far off as Jamaica.
Whether John Henry’s story is based in fact or fiction isn’t very important when we look at the symbol which he has become. Because of the profession he worked in until his dying breath, he has been used as a rallying point for labor movements, and in particular the countless other faceless railroad workers who died from accidents and illness over the centuries.
Because of his race and the trials he nobly endured, his image was right at home with the American Civil Rights Movement. His story represents the worst aspects of exploitation and the degradation of human beings brought on by the age of machinery, yet he also embodies the greatest qualities of the human beings who fight and succeed through great adversity.
In World War II propaganda – during a time when the United States was struggling to deal with its own social tolerance and diversity -John Henry’s image was used to express those same ideals. Today, his likeness has appeared in film, work songs and other music, television, literature, US postage stamps, and even video games.
One legacy of John Henry that is especially apropos of his use as a symbol for black perseverance in the face of discrimination is the use of his name to describe a stress coping strategy. John Henryism (or simply JH) is the act of responding to prolonged stresses’ at work, in daily life, or from social discrimination’ by expending higher and higher levels of effort to resolve an issue or improve one’s lot, until the stresses result in physical or psychological illness.
JH was first observed in the 1970s and was named by the public health researcher Sherman James while studying the stark differences in the health between African Americans and other racial groups in North Carolina.
One interviewee, coincidentally named John Henry Martin, had raised his family up out of illiterate sharecropper poverty and owned his own farm of 75 acres by the age of 40. He also suffered terribly from stress-related hypertension, arthritis, and peptic ulcers as a result.