Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal

“Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal,” by Eric K. Washington, Liveright Publishing, NY, 2019. This 350-page hardback tells the story of James Williams, who was the head Red Cap at Grand Central Station. The author weaves in the story of middle class blacks in New York in the age of Jim Crow laws. We don’t hear much about middle class blacks. Williams was the first black Red Cap. In his time, all Red Caps were black. Many were college students working at one of the few jobs available to them.

Grand Central was the New York Central Railroad’s Manhattan train station. It opened Feb 2, 1913. Red Caps were hired by the railroad to help passengers find their way to the their destination beginning in 1895. Railroad employees were easily identified by their Red Caps. They were not porters. Numerous grips were there to help with luggage for tips. The original station opened as Grand Central Depot in 1871; it became the first Grand Central Station in 1895. Red Caps became exclusively black in 1905. Racial tensions had festered for years in New York City. On July 13, 1863, mostly Irish draft rioters burned the Colored Orphan Asylum at 42nd st.

Peter S. Porter was an early proponent of equal rights for blacks. In 1856, blacks were displaced from a street railway car to make room for whites. Porter sued and reached a settlement that gave people of color the same rights as white passengers. In 1871, he bought a brownstone townhouse at 252 West 26th St near Eighth Ave. It was known as Peter’s Mansion and became a center of black social life.

Williams and two brothers attended Colored School No. 4. The first African Free School was founded in 1787 to educate Negro children when slavery in New York State ended on July 4, 1827.

Harlem had been a backwater. When the first subway line was completed in 1904, developers expected new business. When that failed, they were convinced to accept blacks. Harlem became the home of middle class blacks (who had previously mostly lived in the Tenderloin). Completion of Pennsylvania Station on the same subway line in 1910 was another plus. Williams moved to Harlem in 1905. Restrictive covenants applied to some Harlem properties, but they were broken by 1910.

In the Jim Crow era, blacks knew they were not welcome in many professions. There were few colored architects, engineers or electricians. There were doctors, lawyers, and clergymen.

Pullman porters had been black from the late 1860s. Black Red Caps arrived thirty years later. Blacks had fraternal orders from 1787. Williams was a member of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World or IBPOEW, or Colored Elks. Colored Elks began after a Grand Exalted Ruler of the Elks left a ritual book on a Pullman car where it was found by a porter. Costly law suits continued for years.

Williams became chief Red Cap in 1909. He played a role in the appointment of Jesse Battle as he first Negro policeman in New York City.

Railroads provided access to beaches in New Jersey. Asbury Park, founded as a Protestant temperance resort in 1874, flourished as an affluent resort served mostly by black waiters. Blacks were not allowed on New Jersey beaches. Atlantic City, the foremost mecca of pleasure was founded in 1854. Until 1925, Walls’ Bath Houses was the only black owned business in Atlantic City. It was popular with black professionals. Walls’ beaches were open to blacks until 1906 when segregation laws were passed. From 1910 to 1935, Williams did annual fishing expeditions to the Vermont governors lakeside lodge in Canada.

Williams’ son Wesley became the first black fireman in Manhattan in 1919. Williams used his connections to secure the appointment. Some of the antiblack discrimination in the firehouse is described. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1927; in 1938 to Battalion Chief.

The Red Caps met many famous people traveling on the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited. One was Joe Louis, the champion boxer, who was treated as royalty by Red Caps. In 1935, Louis posed as a Red Cap for photographers. Photos show Williams with band leader Paul Whiteman and Judy Garland.

Pennsylvania Railroad’s competitor, the Broadway Limited (NYC to Chicago) is not mentioned. Penn Station did have Red Caps.

In 1937, the Red Caps formed a union, the International Brotherhood of Red Caps.

Williams died in 1948. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. With the decline of passenger railroading, Red Caps have disappeared from Grand Central Station, but still may be found at some train stations.

The author gives us a well researched glimpse of the life of middle class blacks in Manhattan. Photos. References. Index.