Lasting lessons in human race relations from ‘Mr. Redcap’

The Charleston Amtrak station in North Charleston. (Wade Spees/File)

That flag is down, finally.

Our state has answered a call of history, signaling to the world it is determined to rid bridles of the past from its promising future.

But this is a beginning, not the end. And the feeling is South Carolina is getting it right, and wherever the freshening dialogue about race relations takes us, we’re going to be okay.

For my generation, memories of growing up with racial divides are stirred. What seemed cookie-cutter normal six decades ago seems senseless ignorance now.

Memories? I have so many. In late summer 1954, the new passenger train station at North Charleston’s Seven Mile viaduct was in early construction. It would replace the temporary station just down the track — which was rushed into service after Charleston Union Station at Columbus and East Bay streets burned in 1947.

The referenced “new” station is the very old one still serving some 75,000 train passengers annually near North Charleston’s historic Liberty Hill community — the station about to be razed and replaced with a sleek new combination rail and bus passenger terminal.

My 1954 summer Bible School project was a wooden shoe-shine box. I painted it bright yellow, borrowed some polish and rags from my father’s kit and headed across the open field from John C. Calhoun Homes to the temporary train station to make some summer spending money. Those coming and going passengers surely needed well-shined shoes.

Back then, “redcaps” provided baggage services. In their red pillbox caps, these men — most were black — were personable and popular features of rail travel on the East Coast. On the first day of my yellow box enterprise, the station master gently chased me out of the building.

I noticed the redcap watching my raw youthful eagerness and muddled skills. I can’t remember his name: maybe I never knew it. But I’ll never forget him. “Little man, these folks are moving too fast for you,” he advised, convincing me fairly quickly that my precocious business plan was not a good fit for the train station.

This experienced black man then offered simple advice for an eager boy who just happened to be white: “Think about what those people need and when they need it. ... Don’t worry about the money first; worry about what you’re doing for money first — and do it right. The money will take care of itself.”

I was mesmerized. And then a train rumbled into the station. “Watch me,” he said.

He moved toward the passengers, tipping his hat and greeting many by their names. He heaved bags quickly onto a wheeled cart and off to waiting cabs or cars.

His smile was genuine, especially when the passengers handed him tips, and especially when those tips were bills not coins.

This was a man at work, a professional providing a service and doing it well.

I watched him work for several hours, listened to his stories about the “old station downtown that burned right down to the ground,” and then I headed home. And the next morning, I went back. I called my new friend “Mr. Redcap.” He seemed to like that.

I watched at a distance as he worked. At one busy moment, I saw him motioning for me.

“Take this over to that car,” he directed, handing me a small carry case. Soon I had assisted him as he served three couples transferring luggage to cars and cabs. With this operation completed, Mr. Redcap showed me the $3.50 in tip money he had collected. He gave me the half-dollar piece. I was elated, and I had just learned my first lesson of agency.

My brother Billy and I would go over to the train station often that summer, offering our assistance to the redcaps.

Many years later in a business class discussion about division of labor and “teacher” bosses, I wrote a paper about “Mr. Redcap.”

The professor thought it remarkable that I would remember and acknowledge the role of a black man. And thus, this nice little personal memory cannot evade the realities of race in Old Charleston 61 years ago. Race divisions were a confusing and pervasive reality for my generation. It was there, as a formatted ignorance, and even as young boys, we wondered “why.”

That new train station opened in 1956 with separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites. At any location that was idiocy, but this celebrated new station was built across that field from Liberty Hill, the oldest neighborhood in North Charleston, founded in 1866 and developed by former slaves.

What the hell were the railroads thinking?

What did “separate but equal’ really mean?

We played with black children in that field bounding the new train station. But we didn’t go to school with them. And, oh, by the way — Why couldn’t we North Charleston boys play the Cannon Street YMCA Little Leaguers?

These are typical questions and confusions of a generation who never fully understood the proposition of segregation — and probably should have done even more to quicken the purge of racial divides. The Amtrak station’s segregated waiting rooms were blended long ago, but against the backdrop of personal history, this building stands as a recurring insult to “Mr. Redcap” and his community.

So, I’m glad our City of North Charleston is taking the lead in tearing it down and building a new one. “Mr. Redcap” has a friend on City Council. That boy he befriended in 1954 will propose to Mayor Summey and his City Council colleagues that the new building should include an artful tribute to the redcaps and to a future of ever-improving racial relations.

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston City Councilman. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.