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Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal

Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal

by December 27, 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 intertwined 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. 80 photographs.

Harlem-based black men not only once formed the essential labor force of America’s most august railroad station

In this Community Scholars Lecture, Eric K. Washington discusses the Harlem Renaissance-era labor figure James H. Williams, subject of his just-published biography. In a timely reclamation, he uncovers the nearly forgotten life of James H. Williams (1878–1948), the chief of Grand Central Terminal’s iconic Red Cap porters. That multitude of Harlem-based black men not only once formed the essential labor force of America’s most august railroad station, but often infused the lifeblood of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. 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 intertwined subjects of class, labor, and African American history, Washington chronicles Williams’s life, showing how he 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. Eric K. Washington is an independent historian who has held fellowships at Columbia University and the CUNY Leon Levy Center for Biography, as well as the MFAH Dora Maar House in Ménerbes, France. He lives in New York. “In this illuminating debut biography, historian Washington celebrates a black New Yorker who won authority and influence in a segregated economy…. 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… The result is a rich, stirring social history of African-Americans’ struggle to succeed in an unfair system.” — Publishers Weekly “A thoroughly researched and illuminating biography…. Washington gives a palpable sense of the myriad obstacles blacks faced…. An absorbing, fresh perspective on black history.” — Kirkus Reviews

Editorial Reviews

07/08/2019

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.)

Publishers Weekly

10/01/2019 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
Library Journal
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