How racial challenges shaped the life of an influential African American.
Redcaps—porters and luggage handlers—at 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.