Steel Drivin' Man

by Scott Reynolds Nelson

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How did the Reconstruction's politics and policies make life difficult for black people in the South?

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In Steel Drivin' Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson tells the true story of the African American convict from Virginia who inspired the American legend, the Ballad of John Henry. In telling the story, Nelson reveals the system of injustice institutionalized by the Black Codes and the effect of these Codes on African Americans living in the South after their emancipation. Immediately after the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted, the former Confederate states were required by law to maintain a policy of “separate but equal.” In theory, African Americans were no longer enslaved, and thus they were entitled to the same rights and privileges as white people. The Black Codes, however, were modeled after the former slave laws. Therefore, in practice, they limited the rights and the freedoms of the emancipated African Americans, often by subjecting them to oppressive conditions and forcing them to perform back-breaking labor for exceptionally low pay. They also allowed African Americans to be arrested for minor infractions of the law and to serve unreasonably harsh sentences.

Such is the story of the real John Henry. He was a convict from Virginia, forced to labor driving the steel stakes for the railroad without pay. In the Jim Crow South, a system of labor was enacted that was known as convict leasing, which allowed African Americans convicted of vagrancy to be leased out of the penitentiary as unpaid workers. Therefore, effectively, they were still enslaved. The real John Henry was convicted for the theft of a grocery store, taking money that amounted to less than $50. Because he was black, however, his punishment doomed him to return to a life of enslavement – Nothing changed for a long time after slavery was abolished in the States. The Black Codes remained in effect for years and continued to validate injustice. The people who ran the government hadn’t changed when the slaves were freed—their racist attitudes dictated policy and practice in the South for years to come. The Black Codes supported a system of institutionalized white supremacy.

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