Celebrating Black History Month With SCVWG’s Story of John Henry

Feb 10, 2022 | Blog Post

For Black History Month, we are celebrating by revisiting the story of John Henry with Vanguard performance coach and storyteller, Wayne Harris. A freedman during the Reconstruction Era, post Civil War, John Henry was a railroad steel driver and, as legend has it, could outwork any machine. He became a heroic symbol for African Americans, as well as the working class, whose story inspired songs, books and film.

In 2012, the SCV Winterguard presented their show, “John Henry: A Story For Our Time.” The storyline for the show was pitched by Wayne, not sure how the rest of the design team would receive it, as it was originally intended for elementary-age kids. “When I first started telling the John Henry story, I was working for Stagebridge Theatre in Oakland, CA, which specialized in providing after-school programs for students in marginalized neighborhoods. My job was to work with 4th and 5th graders on the traditions of storytelling,” says Wayne, who early on realized that the students were more interested in his personal stories about growing up in St. Louis over fairytales, myths and legends. “So I decided to combine the two!”

Wayne’s father was the first who told him the tale of John Henry. The students loved hearing about the story with his father, as it involved a young Wayne electrocuting himself and ending up in the hospital, where his father would visit every night and tell him stories about John Henry while eating chocolate chip ice cream. “At the very core of the story is the idea that one person can make a huge impact, whether it be John Henry, or my father coming to comfort a scared little boy in the hospital every night. The stories of them both together was a way to show them that we are all capable of heroic efforts, just by doing one good thing every day.” Wayne tells us, “I wanted the students in these communities to see their own lives in heroic terms. We are in unprecedented times and we are all challenged in ways that force us to be brave, resilient and strong!”

With this added insight, take some time to enjoy “John Henry: A Story For Our Time” by the 2012 SCV Winterguard, a show that broke boundaries with Wayne himself doing the live narration! If you have ever shared time or space with Wayne, you know that his mission to share storytelling across all mediums and generations has made a positive and undeniable impact on those within our activity. Thank you, Wayne, for sharing with us!

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