Eric K. Washington on the Life of James H. Williams, with Pamela Newkirk
NOV 08, 2019 | 6:30 PM TO 8:00 PM
The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
November 08, 2019: 6:30 PM-8:00 PM
Leon Levy Center for Biography
In a feat of remarkable research and timely reclamation, Eric K. Washington uncovers the nearly forgotten life 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 reveals that despite the deeply 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. Examining the deeply intertwined subjects of class, labor, and African American history, Washington chronicles Williams’s life, showing how the enterprising son of freed slaves 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.
Pamela Newkirk is a journalist, professor, and multidisciplinary scholar whose work traverses history and journalism. Her latest book, Diversity Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business will be published this fall. Her previous book, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga was completed while she was a Leon Levy Biography fellow. The book was selected as the Best Book of 2015 by NPR, The Boston Globe, and The San Francisco Chronicle; an Editor's Choice by The New York Times and won the NAACP Image Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.