Boss of the grips The life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal

Eric K. Washington

Book - 2019

"A long-overdue biography of the head of Grand Central Terminal's Red Caps, who flourished in the cultural nexus of Harlem and American railroads. In a feat of remarkable research and timely reclamation, Eric K. Washington uncovers the nearly forgotten life of James H. Williams (1878-1948), the chief porter of Grand Central Terminal's Red Caps--a multitude of Harlem-based black men whom he organized into the essential labor force of America's most august railroad station. Washington reveals that despite the highly racialized and often exploitative nature of the work, the Red Cap was a highly coveted job for college-bound black men determined to join New York's bourgeoning middle class. Examining the deeply intertwin...ed subjects of class, labor, and African American history, Washington chronicles Williams's life, showing how the enterprising son of freed slaves successfully navigated the segregated world of the northern metropolis, and in so doing ultimately achieved financial and social influence. With this biography, Williams must now be considered, along with Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jacqueline Onassis, one of the great heroes of Grand Central's storied past"--

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New York, N.Y. : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W W. Norton & Company [2019]
Main Author
Eric K. Washington (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xviii, 350 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [329]-330) and index.
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Coming of Age On The Brink of The Twentieth Century
  • 1. "To Hustle While You're Waiting"
  • 2. "A Gilded, but Gritty Age"
  • Part II. Twentieth Century Unlimited
  • 3. "If We Cannot Go Forward, Let Us Mark Time"
  • 4. Fraternity and Ascendancy
  • 5. Harlem Exodus to the Bronx and to the Sea
  • 6. War at Home and Abroad
  • Part III. Harlem Renaissance
  • 7. "A Sweet Spot in Harlem Known as Strivers' Row"
  • 8. The Black Decade
  • 9. Testaments in Transit
  • Part IV. Celebrity House
  • 10. Bandwidths
  • 11. Moving to the Dunbar
  • Part V. Eclipse
  • 12. Organized Labor Pains
  • 13. "Things Reiterated as the American Way"
  • 14. A Second Marriage
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this illuminating debut biography, historian Washington celebrates a black New Yorker who won authority and influence in a segregated economy: James H. Williams, supervisor from 1909 to 1948 of the almost all-black staff of "Red Cap" railroad porters who carried bags and chaperoned passengers at Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal. In Washington's telling, Red Capping both reinforced and subverted racist expectations. A lowly service position, it nonetheless demanded polished social skills and drew well-educated workers; many of the men Williams hired used the job to put themselves through college or graduate school--and to survive when they were barred from professional positions because of their race. Washington packs a wealth of piquant historical detail into a well-paced narrative written in lucid prose. He paints a vivid portrait of the bustling golden age of train travel, and makes Williams a fitting exemplar of Harlem's ambitious black middle class: he organized bands and sports teams, supported the NAACP and campaigned for civil rights, and used his high-profile Grand Central post to forge advantageous friendships with white leaders. (Theodore Roosevelt wrote a recommendation that helped Williams's son get into New York's segregated fire department, where he became the first black captain.) The result is a rich, stirring social history of African-Americans' struggle to succeed in an unfair system. Photos. (Oct.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

In this biographical study, independent historian Washington tells the story of how African Americans during the early 20th century were able to carve out employment as railway baggage handlers, or Red Caps--an essential component of the nation's transportation system of the time. Washington's biography follows the life and events surrounding James H. Williams (1878--1948), who became Grand Central Terminal's first African American Red Cap in 1903 and Chief Attendant in 1909, after which he would supervise hundreds of men over the next 40 some years. The author explains the significance of Williams and his Red Caps on New York's African American community in promoting economic and educational advancement, civil rights, sports, the arts, and pride of achievement, all of which contributed to the Harlem Renaissance. VERDICT Washington's illustrated and well-researched work will have some appeal for rail fans, but its true value is for readers interested in the social condition of African Americans in New York during the period.--Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

How racial challenges shaped the life of an influential African American.Redcapsporters and luggage handlersat New York's Grand Central Terminal started in 1895 and by 1905 were entirely staffed by African American men. The job, writes Washington (Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem, 2002) in a thoroughly researched and illuminating biography, was "a rare and propitious employment option in an era of rigid racial barriers." Foremost among the redcaps was James H. Williams (1878-1948), who, from 1909 to 1948, served as "a general factotum" whose duties involved "hiring, training, assigning, and supervising some five hundred men." Known as "the Chief," he became an influential figure in New York's African American community, famous "for rallying his Red Cap porters to support racial uplift' causes." Those causes included supporting the NAACP; organizing mutual aid societies to alleviate financial troubles and bolster business ventures; mounting a fundraising campaign for a Colored YMCA and YMHA in Harlem; buying war bonds at the outbreak of World War I; and participating in the Grand Central Red Cap Orchestra, band, and chorus. The Red Cap Quartet performed regularly on national radio; the orchestra played at the 15th reunion of the Princeton University class of 1917. Besides promoting civic and cultural projects, Williams organized both a baseball and a basketball team, making sure that their games received positive media attention. Washington gives a palpable sense of the myriad obstacles blacks faced: Many redcaps, for example, had college training but saw "that a diploma did not ensure the ability to break through certain prevailing Jim Crow barriers." Williams' eldest son transcended the color line to become the first black fireman in Manhattan, inciting every fireman in the company to request a transfer (requests that were denied); a few years later, he was the first black fireman promoted to the rank of officer. As one former redcap wrote on the eve of World War II, as "a soldier fighting for those things that are constantly being reiterated as the American way," he protested that black workers were "tyrannized, intimated, and plagued."An absorbing, fresh perspective on black history. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.