John Henry was sweating bullets building West Virginia’s Great Bend Tunnel. Working the railroad wasn’t easy; it required long hours and paid low wages.
Was the grind worth it?
Henry was known as the most powerful man on the tracks. He became a symbol of hard work for the many Black folks whose blood, sweat, and tears built and maintained the railroads.
It was a dangerous legacy to carry.
In the 1870s, building a tunnel was a long and slow process, using only a hand drill and a hammer. When the company brought in a steam drill to speed up the process, all eyes were on Henry to prove he could drill faster and further than the machine.
With a hammer in each hand, he conjured up the strength to drill a 14-foot hole into the rock, beating the steam drill’s nine-foot dig.
Henry defeated the machine, but exhaustion killed him soon after. In Hoodoo, John Henry is a ‘road opener’ and a revered divinity of technology and labor. We can honor his determined spirit while still acknowledging that Henry’s legacy is a cautionary tale for our people.
We’re not meant to outrun machines, but anti-Black grind culture has tried to make us believe otherwise. Our value as people isn’t dependent on our labor. We deserve the rest that many of our ancestors never had.
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