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Grand Central Terminal at 100: railroad ties to Black History Month (Photos)

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New York City’s venerable Grand Central Terminal is an architectural confection. But the icon also bears a bittersweet memento of African-American history.

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This year marks the 100-year anniversary of Grand Central Terminal--which opened on 42nd Street and Park Avenue on February 1, 1913--and thousands will duly celebrate this masterwork of design and engineering. The centennial also coincides with Black History Month, whose theme this year--”Crossroads of Freedom and Equality”--are on track with the railway station’s own rich history. Obvious, yet often overlooked, was an integral component of Grand Central Terminal’s character and function: the African-American labor force of luggage porters known as Red Caps.

Gateway of opportunity

The origin of the Red Caps is steeped in popular lore. The story most often points to James H. Williams (1879-1948), a black teenager who worked at Grand Central’s previous station house on the same site. In his book, Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality, Eric Arnesen recounts the urban legend that on Labor Day of 1892, Williams simply “fastened a piece of red flannel to his hat.”

The colorful gesture became history. Grand Central eventually sanctioned “Red Caps” inside the station. And Williams was thereafter linked to the country’s first established system of regularly staffed railroad porters. Through Williams’ influence, Arnesen writes, the Red Cap system, mandated to “the greeting of passengers at station entrances and at Pullman cars,” became the model for numerous railroad stations elsewhere.

Relieved local travelers could at last distinguish the nattily uniformed Red Caps from the motley so-called “public porters,” black and white, who routinely besieged them on the street. But inasmuch as the porters were “staffed,” they were unsalaried and subsisted only on tips for years. Still, Williams saw their approved status in Grand Central as a position of advantage, a linchpin of opportunity in a time of racial work barriers.

Williams’ own official tenure at Grand Central is usually noted as starting in 1903, ten years prior to the opulent new station that opened in 1913. In 1910, on the heels of his appointment as chief attendant, he co-founded the Attendants’ Beneficial Association of Grand Central Terminal. Such “mutual relief societies” traditionally provided forms of health insurance and funeral assistance.

The “Chief,” as most people affectionately called him, was recalled for his keenness to open crucial doors for others. Particularly black students. In 1923, the New York Age observed that he had encouraged “some of the most successful [African-American] men in this city” to defray college expenses by working summers as Red Caps at Grand Central. And a few years later, the New Yorker magazine observed that the porter staff working on “Sugar Hill”--as Red Caps referred to the terminal’s Vanderbilt Avenue taxi entrance--included “five graduate students (one of them an honor student at Harvard), several lawyers, singers, teachers of music, and other persons of some erudition and attainment.”

In 1928, the Pittsburgh Press asserted that the “person who put the railroad station porter in a red cap...and finally succeeded in selling him to the traveling public...is Chief James H. Williams, head of a body of 500 fellow colored men, the largest force of red caps in the world, at the Grand Central terminal, New York.”

Actor Richard Huey, a Red Cap alum, had firsthand memories of the job’s significance in the 1920s. “Make no mistake, that was movin’ up,” Huey declared in a New York Times interview in 1944. He had risen to a Broadway star (the show-stopping “I Got a Song” man in the musical “Bloomer Girl”), radio personality, theatrical agent and restaurateur. But he still recalled older days as a young hopeful who had come to New York in the era of the storied Harlem Renaissance.

“In those days...if you’d take a little bag from a lady and maybe get some magazines for her she’d often as not give you a dollar,” Huey said. “On the day of the Yale-Harvard football game I made thirty dollars.”

For legions of black porters at Grand Central Terminal, the job was admittedly a gateway of opportunity. But tensions over wages, working conditions and racial divisions had dogged the Red Cap workforce since the 1890s. Their labor grievances culminated in 1937 with the founding of the International Brotherhood of Red Caps (IBRC), which in 1940 became the United Transport Service Employees of America (UTSEA); and with their declared independence from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to their affiliation with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1942.

Iconic “Red Cap” image

Despite its original connection, the term “red cap” quickly jumped track out of Grand Central Terminal, and even out of the railroad context. In March 1918, Chief Williams backed an auspicious baseball team of New York’s Negro League. Reporting on the following year’s season opener in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the New York Age remarked that the “Grand Central Red Caps, under the leadership of Chief Williams and Captain C.B. Earle...compose one of the strongest colored teams in the East,” Williams approved a professional basketball team five years later under the same name.

Around 1929, Williams’ “idea of having a musical organization,” the New Yorker reported, resulted in a 17-piece orchestra that was “augmented, on occasion, to as many as thirty-two,” and which played in the station, for outside events and even “broadcast a couple of times.” In 1930, African-American band leader Russell Wooding took over as leader of the Grand Central Red Caps orchestra, 14 of which backed vocalist Frank Lutherthe following year on “Nina.”

In 1941, four singers, also called the Grand Central Red Caps--three of whom actually were--won the city championship to qualify for the national Barber Shop Quartet competition in St. Louis, Missouri. The national officials barred the singers however, telegramming that “we ought not to permit colored people to participate.” Two of the New York judges--Park Commissioner Robert Moses and former State Governor Alfred E. Smith--promptly railed at the organizers’ bias and resigned as vice presidents.

In 1943, yet another singing group snatched the winning name. The black jive quintet dubbing itself the 5 Red Caps recorded the aptly titled “Grand Central Station.” The peppy ditty seemed calculated to disarm the prevailing stresses of World War II.

Red Cap Preacher

“Grand Central Terminal is a parish. A big one and a mighty good one.” a Red Cap once told a reporter from Guideposts, Norman Vincent Peale’s faith-based magazine.

The wartime era of the early 1940s had perhaps been conducive to thrusting this particular Red Cap into prominence. Ralston Crosbie Young was officially identified as Red Cap #42, but most people called him the Red Cap Preacher.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon, Young slipped away from Grand Central Terminal’s congested concourse through the arch of Track 13. There, in the hush of an idle railroad coach, he regularly convened with a microcosm of the station’s disparate sea of humanity to conduct prayer services.

Some co-workers ribbed him. Nevertheless, Young’s unassuming evangelism inspired commuters, soldiers, businessmen, merchant seamen and lonely hearts. It also garnered him far-flung invitations to speak at churches and colleges, and flurries of press for many years.

“I wouldn’t trade my job here for any in the world,” Young had added, and then ended his ethereal errand to resume his duties of trucking luggage.

For Chief Williams’ part, he traded his job only upon the inevitable summoning to another calling. He died in 1948, aged 69. “We can’t run Grand Central without the Chief,” the supervisor of the station’s Travelers Aid Society had said some years prior, and evoking comparison to one of the world’s most famous railroad trains, added, “He’s as much a part of the place as the Twentieth Century.”

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