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

Eric K. Washington. Liveright, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-63149-322-5
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.)
Reviewed on : 06/24/2019
Release date: 10/22/2019
Genre: Nonfiction
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