Planes Trains and Automobiles Podcasts

James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal

PODCAST EPISODE #339: An interview with author Eric K. Washington, author of “Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal”. 

The Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal were a workforce of hundreds of African-American men who were an essential part of the long-distance railroad experience. Passengers relied on Red caps for more than simply grabbing their bags — they were navigators, they helped with taxis, offered advice, and provided a warm greeting.

In his 2019 book, “Boss of the Grips: The Life  of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal”, author Eric K. Washington tells the remarkable story of Williams, “The Chief” of the Grand Central Red Caps. He was a boss to many, a friend to thousands of passengers, and a confidant to celebrities, politicians… even occupants of the White House.

He also tells the story of Grand Central Terminal, and specifically, of the Red Caps who worked here, especially during the Terminal’s heyday in the first half of the 20th century. And along the way, the book chronicles how New York’s African-American enclaves and communities developed and moved around the city. 

That huge story is told through the lens of this one, often underappreciated, and yet instrumental man — James Williams. He was the chief of the Red Caps, but also an under-reported figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

The New York Central launched its free Red Cap service in 1895, and promoted it widely in advertisements like this one, from 1896.
When Williams sat for this portrait in 1905, he was working as a Red Cap, but had not yet been named Red Cap director, or “Chief”.
Williams became the “Chief” of the Red Caps in 1909, and immediately got to work organizing a benevolent association for the Red Caps, covered here in the New York Age in 1910.
Chief Williams posing with the Grand Central Terminal Red Caps baseball team in 1918.
Red Caps carried hat boxes, valises… and sometimes even crying babies, too, as illustrated in this 1921 cover of The American Legion Weekly.
James H. Williams was regularly covered in the local and national press. In 1923, the New York Age published a profile of Williams on its front page.

Hal Morey’s iconic shot of Grand Central from 1930 captures a blur of activity in the lower left corner. Could it be a Red Cap carrying a bag, drenched in sun?

The Grand Central Red Caps Orchestra perform “Nina”, under the direction of Russell Wooding, Frank Luther (vocals). RCA Victor, 1931

In 1939 as Red Caps around the country started organizing, Chief Williams remained strategically quiet. The formation of a Red Cap union was covered in this piece in the New York Age, September 16, 1939.
Williams obit in the New York Times, May 5, 1948.

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4 replies on “James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal”

Thanks so much for inviting me on! It’s always a pleasure to talk about James H. Williams’s singular success at New York’s iconic “gateway to the American continent.“ Chief Williams deftly turned Grand Central Terminal’s racialized and subordinated department into a potent byway towards African-American economic advancement, community building and activism. His redcap alums included NYC‘s first black policeman Jesse Battle; international concert artist and human rights activist Paul Robeson; and U.S. congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. But even more, his example at Grand Central influenced railroad stations nationwide. I’m thrilled to think our convo will treat your listeners to just a fraction of Williams’s fascinating New York story, which of course was enough to fill my book, “Boss of the Grips.”

I am producing and directing a play about the red caps. The lead performer will play of course Mr. Williams. It’s a bit sugar coated to make it entertaining, but the message of what he did and what the red caps went through will be witnessed. Knowing about some of the noted people that he and his red cap’s helped would be helpful. Thank you.

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