THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY BLACK PEOPLE: Black Folk Heroes in the Age of Steam!
A folk hero is a type of hero who gains this status based on personal achievement or some action which is recognized by others as revolutionary.
The one crucial trait that every folk hero must possess is widespread recognition of the person as being heroic. Many people commit acts of kindness or generosity but that alone does not make them a folk hero. When society is able to recognize an important figure by their name, personality, or deeds – and those deeds are deemed heroic by a large group of people – then that figure has achieved the status of folk hero.
In this post, we continue with the League of Extraordinary Black People Series and explore Black Folk Heroes in the Age of Steam!
High John the Conqueror
John the Conqueror – also known as High John the Conqueror, John de Conquer, John the Conqueroo and John D. Konkeroo – was an African prince who was sold as a slave in the Americas. Despite his enslavement, his spirit was never broken and because of the tricks he played to evade the back breaking labor and punishments inflicted by his cruel masters, he survived, in folklore, as a revered trickster figure.
In the Rite of Passage Steamfunk universe, he is the mayor of the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, an extraordinary little town, which is protected by four extraordinary guardians who possess extraordinary abilities.
In fact, every inhabitant of the town is, in some way extraordinary, however, among the inhabitants, John and the Guardians are the most powerful, feared and revered of them all.
Joel Chandler Harris’s ‘Br’er Rabbit’, of the Uncle Remus stories, is said to be patterned after High John the Conqueror. Zora Neale Hurston wrote of his adventures (“High John de Conquer”) in her collection of folklore, The Sanctified Church. She also makes reference to him in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In one traditional John the Conqueror story told by Virginia Hamilton, John falls in love with the Devil’s daughter. The Devil sets John a number of impossible tasks: he must clear sixty acres (25 ha) of land in half a day, and then sow it with corn and reap it in the other half a day. The Devil’s daughter furnishes John with a magical axe and plow that get these impossible tasks done, but warns John that her father the Devil means to kill him even if he performs them. John and the Devil’s daughter steal the Devil’s own horses; the Devil pursues them, but they escape his clutches by shape-shifting.
In High John De Conquer, Zora Neale Hurston reports that: like King Arthur of England, he has served his people. And, like King Arthur, he is not dead. He waits to return when his people shall call him again … High John de Conquer went back to Africa, but he left his power here, which dwells in the root of a certain plant. Possess that root, and he can be summoned at any time.
Clever, strong, and independent, High John the Conqueror is a child of the merging cultures of Africa and America, and – true to his trickster ways – although John is an Afrikan man in bondage, he exhibits all the qualities of an ideal American.
Railroad Bill was an African American outlaw whose action-packed career on the wrong side of the law has been preserved in music, fiction, and theater. He has been variously portrayed as a Robin Hood character, a murderous criminal, a shape shifter, and a nameless victim of the Jim Crow South.
While his identity has never been conclusively identified, it is believed by railroad detectives that he was a man named Morris Slater, but residents of Brewton, Alabama disagree, believing him to be a man named Bill McCoy, who was shot – and erroneously believed killed – by local law enforcement.
In early 1895, an armed vagrant began riding the L&N railroad’s boxcars between Flomaton and Mobile, earning the nickname “Railroad Bill,” or sometimes just “Railroad,” from the trainmen who had trouble detaining the rifle-wielding hitchhiker.
On March 6, 1895, railroad employees attempted to restrain a man they found sleeping on a water tank along the railroad. The man fired on them and escaped into the woods after hijacking a train car. This incident sparked a manhunt by railroad company detectives that led a posse to Bay Minette on April 6, 1895. When detectives confronted an armed man there, he opened fire. Baldwin County Deputy Sheriff James H. Stewart was killed in the ensuing gunfight and Railroad Bill evaded capture again.
Deputy Stewart’s killing by this mysterious, elusive and deadly Black man incurred the full wrath of law enforcement and the media. A notice for a $500 reward posted in Mobile identified him as Morris Slater, a convict-lease worker who in 1893 had fled from a turpentine camp in Bluff Springs, Florida, after killing a lawman. Slater had been nicknamed “Railroad Time” for his rapid work pace. Railroad Bill crossed into Florida where, on July 4, 1895, Brewton Sheriff E. S. McMillan tracked him to a house near Bluff Springs. As the sheriff approached the dwelling, the fugitive opened fire and disappeared into the woods, leaving McMillan fatally wounded.
The killing of Sheriff McMillan marked a turning point and greatly expanded the efforts of both Alabama and Florida in hunting down Railroad Bill.
Despite a massive increase in manpower, the outlaw remained at large, robbing trains and selling goods to impoverished people for prices lower than the local merchant stores and, of course, engaging in an occasional shoot-out with lawmen and L&N Railroad authorities.
And the legend of Railroad Bill grew.
Many Black people admired his courage and audacity. Some people attributed supernatural powers to Railroad Bill, maintaining that he was able to evade capture by changing into animal form and that he was only vulnerable to silver bullets. Other tales said that Railroad Bill had the power to disable the tracking abilities of the bloodhounds on his trail.
The author Carl Carmer, in The Hurricane’s Children: Tales from Your Neck o’ the Woods, describes a lawman chasing Railroad Bill:
So the sheriff decided Railroad Bill must be hiding under the low bushes in the clearing and he began looking around. Pretty soon he started a little red fox that lit out through the woods. The sheriff let go with both barrels of his shotgun, but he missed. After the second shot the little red fox turned about and laughed at him a high, wild, hearty laugh – and the sheriff recognized it. That little fox was Railroad Bill.
By the summer of 1895, the L&N Railroad, the state of Alabama, the state of Florida, the town of Brewton, and Escambia County had pooled together a reward of $1,250 for Railroad Bill’s capture. A host of bounty hunters from places as far away as Texas and Indiana descended on southwestern Alabama and the western swamps of Florida. They were joined by operatives of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, L&N detectives, lawmen, and vigilante posses.
Soon, a small army – numbering over one hundred men loaded for bear – were after the legendary killer / “Black Robin Hood”.
The hunt for Railroad Bill persisted until March 7, 1896, when a man was gunned down by a host of law enforcement officials at Tidmore and Ward’s General Store in Atmore, AL, a depot town along the L&N.
Some say that authorities surprised and killed the man as he sat on an oak barrel eating cheese and crackers. Other accounts say that he engaged the lawmen in a shoot-out in front of the store, and still others contend that he walked into a trap at Tidmore and Ward’s.
Railroad Bill’s body was placed on public view in Brewton, AL and crowds of curious spectators gathered to get a glimpse. Many Brewton residents recognized the man as Bill McCoy, a local man who had threatened local saw-mill owner T. R. Miller with a knife at around the same time Morris Slater was working in the turpentine camp in Florida. Souvenir hunters paid 50 cents for a picture of Constable J. L. McGowan, believed to have fired the fatal shot, standing, rifle in hand, over the corpse of Railroad Bill strapped to a wooden plank. After a few days in Brewton, the body was taken by train to Montgomery and later to Pensacola, Florida, for public display. So many people came to see Railroad Bill in Montgomery that authorities charged an admission fee of 25 cents. His body’s final resting place is unknown.
Railroad Bill was a symbol of the racial and economic divide in the post-Reconstruction Deep South. During this period of increasing legal segregation in Alabama and the rest of the South, the hunt for Railroad Bill became a theatrical saga in local newspapers. The outlaw’s legacy has been passed down through generations in many cultural representations. Railroad Bill blues ballads began circulating in the early twentieth century and several blues singers have used “Railroad Bill” as a stage name. In 1981, the Labor Theater in New York City produced the musical play Railroad Bill by C. R. Portz.
In the Rite of Passage universe, Railroad Bill is a resident of Nicodemus under the guise of mayor John D. Konkeroo’s Chief of Staff, Henry Turnipseed.
The character gained prominence in a comic strip and the Chicago Defender newspaper in the early 1930s.
Bud Billiken is the Black leader of The Billiken family of spirits who are responsible for things as they ought to be; so when Steampunks refer to Steampunk as “Victorian life as it should have been”, they are speaking to life under the guidance of the Billiken.
In the Rite of Passage universe, “Bud Billkens”, along with Harriet Tubman’s pupil, Dorothy Wright, teaches at Nicodemus’ only school.
The Billiken were made into charm dolls, created by American art teacher and illustrator, Florence Pretz of St. Louis, Missouri, who is said to have seen the mysterious figure in a dream. In 1908, she obtained a design patent on the ornamental design of the Billiken, who was elf-like with pointed ears, a mischievous smile and a tuft of hair on his pointed head. His arms were short and he sat with his legs stretched out in front of him. To buy a Billiken was said to give the purchaser luck, but to have one given would be even better luck. The image was copyrighted and a trademark was put on the name.
Today, the Billiken is the official mascot of Saint Louis University and St. Louis University High School, both Jesuit institutions, and both located in St. Louis.
The Billiken is also the official mascot of the Royal Order of Jesters, an invitation only Shriner group, affiliated with Freemasonry.
Every year, on the second Saturday in August, there is a huge parade and picnic held in Chicago in honor of Bud Billiken that focuses on the betterment of Chicago Black youth. The Bud Billiken Parade is the second largest – and largest African American – parade in the United States.
John Henry was born a slave in the 1840s or 1850s in North Carolina or Virginia. He grew to stand 6 feet tall, 200 pounds – a heavily muscled man. He had an immense appetite, and an even greater capacity for work. He carried a beautiful baritone voice, and was a favorite banjo player to all who knew him.
His story, now legendary, was told mostly through ballads and work songs, traveling from coast to coast along with the railroads, which drove west during the 19th Century.
“You speak of John Henry as if he was real!” You say.
That’s because he was.
There are actually two John Henrys – the man and the legend surrounding him.
John Henry was an ex-slave from Holly Springs, Mississippi who took his former master’s surname, Dabney, or Dabner, according to some records.
It is known that a Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the Columbus & Western Railway Company during the construction of their line between Goodwater, Alabama, and Birmingham in 1887-88. Dabney was a Rensselaer-educated civil engineer who made a career of railroad design and construction. Captain Dabney’s father owned eight slaves, one named John Henry, born in 1844. He would have been 43 years old when John Henry allegedly died in 1887 – a reasonable age for a champion steel driver.
In addition, there is a strong local tradition among Central of Georgia Railroad employees and around Leeds, Alabama, that a John Henry raced a steam drill and died just outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, between Oak and Coosa Mountain Tunnels.
In the anthology Steamfunk, I write John Henry as a prisoner who agrees to work the railroad for a lesser sentence in the story Rite of Passage: Blood & Iron. This is closer to the truth than the notion of John Henry working for his beloved railroad in order to make a better life for himself and his family.
Evidence of this is in the prison songs that sing the praises of the “steel drivin’ man”. These songs are sung to hammer blows. The last verse says: “They took John Henry to the White House, and they buried him in the sand, and every locomotive comes roarin’ by says there lies a steel drivin’ man.”
Strange that a brother was brought to the White House during that era. Stranger still is sand at the White House and locomotives “roarin by”, as there is no railroad near the White House.
Strangest of all, however, is the fact that the term “White House” wasn’t used for the executive office until Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901.
White House is a term that refers to the penitentiary, which was commonly built near railroads and were often “paved” with sand.
During John Henry’s time, convicts were commonly used to do construction for the railroad; you find steam drills side by side with these convicts and you find that the tunnel they worked on primarily was the Lewis Tunnel.
The real story of John Henry is grimmer than the one in song; uglier.
The C&O railroad wanted to get these tunnels dug; it had to get these tunnels dug by 1872 if it was to be granted the rights to the whole run from Richmond to the Ohio River. So, they bought up all scores of convicts; and they bought up several steam drills.
John Henry and all the other prisoners were forced to work on those tunnels, and nearly everyone who was forced to work on them died in the space of five or six years…not from exertion but from acute silicosis – they inhaled toxic crystalline dust from the rock.
With each breath, the poor workers drew crystalline death into their lungs. So, it probably wasn’t the race that killed John Henry, but the disease he suffered after he was forced to work the tunnels.
The legend says that John Henry was hired as a steel-driver for the C&O Railroad, a wealthy company that extended its line from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio Valley. Steel drivers, also known as a hammer man, would spend their workdays driving holes into rock by hitting thick steel drills or spikes.
The work was treacherous. Visibility was negligible and the air inside the developing tunnel was thick with noxious black smoke and dust. Hundreds of men lost their lives to Big Bend, their bodies piled into makeshift, sandy graves just steps outside the mountain. As the story goes, John Henry was the strongest, fastest, most powerful man working on the rails. He used a 14-pound hammer to drill 10 to 20 feet in a 12-hour day – the best of any man on the rails.
One day, a salesman came to camp, boasting that his steam-powered machine could out drill any man. A race was set: man against machine. John Henry won, the legend says, driving 14 feet to the drill’s nine. He died shortly after, some say from exhaustion, some say from a stroke.
In the Rite of Passage universe, John Henry does not die. He lives on as one of the powerful guardians of Nicodemus, Kansas; his mighty twin hammers beating back all – natural, supernatural and mechanical – who would bring harm to the residents and property of his beloved home town.