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John Henry: The Steel Drivin’ Man

Building the Railroad


If John Henry did exist as a black man in the 1870s, probably he was a former slave. Such “freedmen” joined a large labor force that migrated from the South to work in the North and Midwest.

Over 5,000 African-Americans worked as laborers for the C&O and its contractors during 1871. They labored 10 hours or more for less than a dollar a day. They cleared the way, hauled rock and debris, prepared the road bed, built tunnels and bridges, and laid track. The crews included convicts leased from prisons and some think John Henry may have been among those men.

Click the thumbnail above to hear a 1937 labor crew sing a work song.

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