September 24, 2014
Although thought to be a common folktale of a man outworking a steam engine on a railroad, John Henry is brought to real life in “Steel Drivin’ Man, The Untold Story of an American Legend,” by Scott Reynolds Nelson. By exploring the East Coast, mainly in Virginia, Reynolds Nelson seeks out to tell the true story of John Henry depicting how the new Black Codes set after the Civil War affected the railroad industry, Industrial Revolution, and how John Henry became a legend.
In the 1860’s Black Codes were the subject of debate for nearly the entire country. Reynolds Nelson depicts what happens with John Henry, just one of many African Americans that were arrested to the court systems. John Henry was arrested for burglary of a grocery store of something valuable. Judge Chambers sentenced him to 10 years in Virginia Penitentiary (57,58). Nelson brings attention to this to show how the large amount of blacks built much of the railroad. In 1867 there were new laws banning Black Codes but by the time these passed, blacks outnumbered whites in Richmond 10 to 1 and things really didn’t change otherwise (63). Reynolds Nelson introduces Warden Wardwell into the story and how things begin to change in a dirty cramped penitentiary. In 1868 Wardwell first lends out the inmates to work on the Covington & Ohio Railroad (68). Due to the mass amounts of inmates in prisons, a total of 380 black convicts were sent to the railroads to work between September 1871 and 1872 (25). Many of the men were under a man named Claiborne Mason and with his contract, “stipulated damages of one hundred dollars for each prisoner not returned,” (78) which gave the railroads a way of not getting into trouble for dying inmates working on the railroad.
The industrial revolution was in full effect as the steam engines and railroads were being built post Civil War, supposedly making a better, more united America. Reynolds Nelson brings out how it seemed like a competition between laborers versus machines throughout chapter 5. The way Nelson describes this debate on whether to use a drill that may work or a group of inmates that could work all night led to many of these drill factories to fail. Stories of John Henry beating a steam engine by 5 feet came out and it seemed as if these men were proud to work on the railroad even if the conditions were harsh. By 1872 steam engines did not work on the railroads anymore portraying at the time that the old way is better and Reynolds Nelson wanted people to know that. Although there were a bunch of engineers trying to advance in the world, the story of