Little Known Black History Fact: John Henry Steel

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In a recent Vanity Fair interview, actor Michael B. Jordan turned heads when he mentioned that Black people don’t have their own mythology or folklore. Online, the reaction was swift and in one response, Jordan was reminded of the legend of John Henry, who later inspired the character Steel AKA the Black Superman.

John Henry was allegedly based on a real person by the same name in the town of Talcott, W. Va. Henry was said to be a strong, massive man who worked as a steel driver, blasting holes in rocks with a hammer to make way for explosives. As the story goes, Henry went up against a steam-powered drilling machine, outworking it but later dying of exhaustion at the process. Henry’s legend has been immortalized in song and at Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, a marker tells a bit more about the legend of the 1800s.

Guy B. Johnson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, concluded in his research in the that Henry was indeed real, but nothing was ever been officially confirmed. Scott Reynolds Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William & Mary wrote in his 2006 book “Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend” that Henry was a New Jersey-born man of the same name who was a prisoner that worked on the C&O Railway and helped construct the Lewis Tunnel between Talcott and Millboro, Va. And this adds to other fantastical accounts from Kentucky and all the way down to Jamaica of a powerful steel worker with the Henry name.

In 1993, comics writer Louise Simonson and artist Jon Bogdanove introduced the character of Steel to the DC Comics world. Dr. John Henry Irons was a brilliant engineer who worked for a weapons firm that was angered that a powerful cannon he designed was used to murder innocent people after falling into the wrong hands. Steel attempted to assist Superman against Doomsday with a sledgehammer, with the alien beast eventually killing the son of Krypton.

Emerging later and now wearing a super-powered suit designed after Superman’s costume, he began fighting crime in Metropolis and was one of several “Supermen” who took up the heroic mantle, with his name becoming the “Man of Steel” before Superman eventually renamed him Steel.

Steel remains an important cog of the DC Comics universe, eventually joining the superhero team, the Justice League of America. In one version of the Steel comics, he has since retired.

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