African Americans on Postage Stamps

Folklore: John Henry

32-cent John Henry stamp
The John Henry stamp was issued July 11, 1996.

John Henry is an African-American folk hero who symbolizes strength and determination. The stories about John Henry are not just "tall tales," for they are based on the life of a real person, a former slave working on the railroads after the Civil War, but time has blurred fact and fiction. In the stories, John Henry, a strong "steel-driving man," accepted the challenge of trying to outperform a steam-powered drill. Swinging a heavy hammer in each hand, he beat the machine but died soon after; some say from exhaustion, others say from a broken heart on realizing that machines would replace muscle and spirit.

The Black Experience

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