If the Big Bend tunnel was 1870 J.H. was obviously born a slave with ALL that that entails. He was making a wage of some kind for the first time in his life. He was getting to keep the money for the first time in his life also. (So were the other guys.) Within that frame he had become the BEST at doing his job and he was the one apparently chosen by the others to go up against the steam drill/automation that threatened the few bits of free life that Afro-Americans were allowed to hold onto as their own. When the drill broke his tremendous effort beat the machine BUT he died in that effort. So it was a hollow victory----just like all the other hollow victories Black folk have seemingly won only to find frustration after the win proves to be less than expcted.
Also, I'm reminded of a short and favorite tale of mine. Afellow walking home in mud. Every time he takes one step he falls back two steps. Eventually he turned around, went the other way, and finally got where he wanted to be!!! (Art Thieme)