A long-overdue biography 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 explores how, 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.
... 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 ... it’s 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.
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 ... 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.
In this illuminating debut biography...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 ... The result is a rich, stirring social history of African-Americans’ struggle to succeed in an unfair system.