In this Community Scholars Lecture, Eric K. Washington discusses the Harlem Renaissance-era labor figure James H. Williams, subject of his just-published biography. In a timely reclamation, he uncovers the nearly forgotten life of James H. Williams (1878–1948), the chief of Grand Central Terminal’s iconic Red Cap porters. That multitude of Harlem-based black men not only once formed the essential labor force of America’s most august railroad station, but often infused the lifeblood of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. 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 burgeoning middle class. Examining the deeply intertwined subjects of class, labor, and African American history, Washington chronicles Williams’s life, showing how he 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.
Presented by the Columbia University School of Professional Studies and Office of Government and Community Affairs. Hosted by The Forum at Columbia University.