John Henry and the Railroad Race (and reflections on difficult content)

School Age


Last year I talked a little about how I was asked for a Black History Month program and how my response proved to me that I wasn’t being the kind of ally I needed to be. I learned a lot from the experience of designing and facilitating a program on freedom quilts, but this year, I wanted to do something that wasn’t tied to slavery. I wanted a fun program with popular features that would be attractive to anyone, but just so happened to deal with a Black hero or African American history.

In my pre-planning stage of gathering ideas, I remembered that Pixar has a new short film about John Henry. As I thought about it, it seemed like a program that could be based off a 10 minute, super fun video AND incorporating railroad/train activities could only be a hit for preschool and elementary-aged library users.

The video is vibrant, acknowledges slavery and honors quilting traditions, and really does justice to the folk song, though the lyrics aren’t at all the same. It was written and produced by the same man who made Mulan, if that gives you any ideas. You can find it on this DVD:

short films


So I started piecing together ideas for more content for the program and came across this book:



After reading the description, I decided that I could fold in some of the findings from the book. I DID NOT read the book before I committed to doing the program. The description that I sent ahead for publishing in our newsletter mentioned that we would talk about some theories on the real person behind the tale.

So, if you have read this book, you probably feel a hole forming in the pit of your stomach. If you haven’t, let me just tell you, it gets dark really quickly. More on that in a minute.

I’m pretty busy all the time, so I plan my programs in stages. After the middle of every month, I do some very basic planning for what I’ll do the next month and I send a little description for the newsletter. A couple weeks before the program, I do the deep planning and buying of any materials I need.

This time, I started planning way ahead because I needed to do research. I checked out books with several versions of the tale from nearby libraries, I read Ain’t Nothing But a Man, examined different versions of the folk song, researched the kinds of tools railroad workers used in the antebellum period, found folk music that reflected what railroad workers would have sung, and put everything into a presentation.

Things got really difficult after I read Ain’t Nothing But a Man. You may have guessed this if you know anything about the John Henry tale, but the life of a former slave in the antebellum period was almost never good. In the book, we learn that the man who was most likely the real John Henry was a teenager (probably no older than 15) when he was arrested a year after the Emancipation Proclamation for stealing from a grocery store. He received 10 years in prison as his sentence. While he was there, the warden made the decision to rent out the prisoners to railroad construction companies for working in the most difficult areas. John was sent to the Lewis Tunnel in northwestern Virginia, where the men were known to have actually raced a steam drill and won. However, it’s also recorded that more than 300 men died in making the tunnel, most from injuries and Black Lung. Our researcher found that John Henry disappears from work records after just a few years of working there and that the bodies of around 300 men were excavated from a mass grave in front of the old Virginia State Penitentiary.

Well, &*@$. That’s a WHOLE lot to unpack.

At first, I was almost ready to throw out the whole concept of talking about this book. How on earth could I make that appropriate for children?

Then, I talked with a friend of mine, who happens to be Black. I confided in her that I was really wrestling with this material and was thinking about leaving out all the information from Ain’t Nothing But a Man and focusing on the hardships of railroad workers in general. She encouraged me to work through it. She gently reminded me that without people like me to help interpret this information for children, they would never, ever hear it. She asked me to think about what I learned in history class and what I’ve read in history books aimed at children. How many times did I see stories that handled the nuances of history from the perspective of the oppressed? I thought back and couldn’t think of one time in school when I had learned about the lives of slaves in any detail whatsoever. I’d never learned details of the civil rights movement or heard the names of any who died for basic rights, other than Martin Luther King, Jr. All of that happened much later, when I became an educator. Most children and teens will not learn these stories in school.

So, I did it. I wrestled, and wrestled, and designed something that I could feel comfortable presenting to kids. Here is the outline of my plan:

  1. Start with watching the video
  2. Introduce the material by talking about how great the video is and how we’re going to learn more about the lives of railroad workers.
  3. Go through the presentation, pausing to listen to real music like what railroad workers would have sung, to look at some lyrics from different versions of the John Henry song, and to play a game where they’d make their own railroad.
  4. After the game, we’d dive into what I learned from Ain’t Nothing But a Man. Gently, skimming over the material and sticking to basic facts from the book, not the deeper social context. We’d see pictures of steam drills and I’d give a brief description of what we know about the life of the real John Henry without any graphic horror.
  5. We’d pause to reflect on that and to think about how different it is from the songs we heard and the video we watched. We could say how we felt about it.
  6. I’d wrap it up with my thoughts on why the folk tales, song, and even our video are still important.
  7. We’d end by doing a craft with 3-D paper trains and more fun music.

Now, I live in the rural South and the populations I served are extremely White. I’ve observed racism in my communities firsthand, and I was still willing to grapple with this. However, I knew that the really hard stuff was going to depend on the audience I got. If most of the kids were preschoolers, than talking about dying probably wasn’t an option, but Parts 1-3 of my plan would still be fine. If I had mostly a crowd of kids ages 7 and up, I felt good about doing the whole thing.

If you live in a more diverse community or your population is more liberal than mine, you may not have an issue with doing the whole thing with whatever audience you get.

I got no one. No one came and all the preparation felt a little wasted. I’m still so happy I did it, though. I grew so much in the process.

Here is my presentation, ready to steal. My notes are beneath the slides.

Here are the pictures of my set-up:




This is the game for making the railroad. It’s a big line of packing paper, taped down at each end. The rails are pipe insulation that could be lined up, carefully made straight, and taped down by a team of kids. The area with the chairs is a tunnel for them to build in. If you think you’ll have a lot of kids, you could set up two of these in rows and have them race each other while you play a modern version of the John Henry song.




I flagged a stack of books to share pictures during the presentation.




What you can’t see here is that I also had giant post-it’s on the wall, where I’d written some of the lyrics from different versions of the song to share and to show how it changed over time.


Here’s a folk song that you can let kids listen to and hear how railroad workers would have sung.


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