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

Liveright: Norton. Oct. 2019. 352p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781631493225. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631493232. BIOG
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.

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