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.
An at once inspiring and cautionary new social history of Harlem and beyond in the first half of the 20th century. Mr. Washington, an independent historian, reanimates a lost world of strivers who created a protean civic, artistic and commercial society to subvert the Jim Crow bias still resilient in the most liberal city in America.... An illuminating chronicle of success against the odds... It’s poignant to read all the stories of dogged advancement through deft maneuvering within a rigged system.
— Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal
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 [starred review]
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.
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 this period.
Written with a curator's eye for compelling detail.... Washington does a masterful job detailing the struggles and triumphs of a family determined to make America live up to its promise of democracy.
— Ginger Adams Otis, author of Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest
[Washington] connects the dots with a deep and nuanced understanding of the people, the politics and the times. Boss of the Grips really is a reclamation of the historical record with a respect and a reverence for James Williams and the people he knew in the community that he was a part of.
— A’Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker
Few of us will have known anything about James Williams, and in this sense Washington’s book is similar to the overlooked lives featured these days in the New York Times obituary section. But as these fascinating obits tell us, these overlooked lives provide a fabulous insight into our shared history.
— Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography