Professor Jonathan L. Walton speaks at Morning Prayers about his father who passed away in December. Video by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
My father’s name was John Henry Walton. Some of you here today might be too young to know the cultural signification of that name. John Henry was a folk hero. Legend has it that John Henry was a steel driving man. With a forty-pound hammer and herculean strength, John Henry outpaced a steam-powered drill through the side of a mountain. It was not a machine or any other tool of industrialization that built the railroad. But instead, it was a powerful black man. His name was John Henry.
Railroad workers around the turn of the twentieth century immortalized John Henry in work songs.
John Henry went to the tunnel, steam hammer by his side,
He beat that drill to the end of the tunnel,
And then he laid down his hammer and died.
According to the early University of North Carolina sociologists Guy Johnson and Howard Odum, John Henry was a black Ulysses—a larger than life character of brute strength, champion of labor, and a moral exemplar of success. He refused to give up the race until he declared victory. Only death could cause him to lay his hammer down.
My father lived up to his name. Like the legend of John Henry, he struck an intimidating pose. 18-inch neck, 230 pounds, barrel chest, the jaw and beard of a lumberjack. Such a look made it challenging to vacation with my father when we were kids. Quite often children would approach him asking for his autograph, believing him to be the professional wrestler, The Junkyard Dog.
But more important than his build, what I remember most about my father as a child was his work ethic. He seemed to carry the weight of the world on those broad shoulders. As an air traffic controller, he regulated the flow of air traffic in and out of the world’s busiest airport. Labor experts consider this one of the five most stressful professions. Couple this with the strike in 1981. President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 controllers across the nation, for daring to demand better working conditions. My father had to spend the next five years working literally around the clock. I remember his work schedule well. It was 7 a.m.-3 p.m., 11 p.m.-7 a.m., and then 3 p.m.-11 p.m. Thus, I did not see him much during those years. He was either a lump in the bed because he had just got home from work. Or we could smell his cologne because he had just left for work. John Henry was a steel driving man.
As much as myth and legends might inspire, however, they can also inflict harm. As much as they might motivate, they also misrepresent grim realities. The saga of John Henry is a two-sided tale. It compels us to work hard and take pride. This is a beautiful thing. But at what cost? There has to be more to life than labor and toil. There has to be more to life than work and death.
This was the message the original tune was trying to drive home. The real-life John Henry wasn’t a muscle-bound laborer, but rather a 5’1” teenager from New Jersey. After the Civil War, he was arrested in Virginia guilty of the “Black Codes” that were on the books. These codes were designed to regulate the formerly enslaved. These laws were used to exploit a clause in the 13th Amendment that could re-enslave African Americans when they broke laws such as the ever-applicable “loitering.” And these prisoners were used to provide cheap, expendable labor to the railroad industry. It was the rock dust from the steam drills that would get in the lungs of diggers like John Henry who worked alongside them. So, the original work songs were not talking about a valiant race, but a grim fate. Prisoners were swinging, singing, and signifying. This job gonna kill us like ol’ John Henry.
Today the medical field even has a name for specific ailments associated with black success. They call it “John Henryism.” Those of us in the black community who strive against the odds and acquire success in the face of adversity pay a physical price. High blood pressure. Hypertension. Diabetes. John Henry was a steel driving man. But at what cost?
Love. Appreciating the beauty of life. Time with family. Inhaling not the dust of labor, but rather a range of life experiences. These are the lessons my father has taught me over the past two decades since his retirement. These are the warning alarms that he began to sound ever since Parkinson’s disease began diminishing his body while enriching his spirit.
As his body shrunk, he grew. Calling from Atlanta to talk about absolutely nothing. Watching him play with his grandchildren for hours on end. Sitting next to him on the porch in North Carolina each summer listening to James Cleveland gospel classics. This is the John Henry I came to know in recent years. The John Henry who fussed at me because I was working too hard, not too little. The John Henry who admonished me to get busy helping my kids with homework, get focused on a family vacation, show some discipline and demonstrate gratitude for the many wonders of life.
That was the John Henry I will remember. He did not lay his hammer down on the morning of Sunday, December 17, 2017. That may be when he took his last breath. But he laid his hammer down long before that. John Henry Walton laid his hammer down so that he could pick up life. He laid his hammer down so that he could pick up love. He wants me to tell you to do likewise.