The contributions of the nation’s first Black labor union to the Pullman Company were highlighted last weekend as community leaders celebrated the opening of the historic Pullman National Monument facility with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that capped a weekend of festivities.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot led a group of city and state leaders to officially open the facility that was restored and transformed into a museum and park.
On Friday, September 3, Dr. Lyn Hughes, who founded the nearby National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in 1995, attended the media day and opening day ceremonies. The museum’s president, David Peterson, also attended the event and spoke before about 50 people.
“We’re excited about the grand opening [of the Pullman National Monument],” Peterson said. “We’re excited about the Urban Renaissance that will be going on Monday, September 6, which is an opportunity for us to change the narrative on the far South Side of Chicago. We’re tired of looking on the news and seeing about 100 people getting shot and all these terrible things going on, so we bring a little light about the positive things going on.”
The historic Pullman community on the far South Side was abuzz with activities that recognized the neighborhood’s rich past with tours, programs and exhibits that highlighted charming historic structures that remain an important part of the community’s heritage and culture. Vintage Pullman railcars were on display at a Metra station for visitors to tour. The historic Hotel Florence was available for tours during the four-day event.
At the center of the activities was the restored Pullman National Monument Visitor Center.
Declared a National Monument by President Barack Obama in 2015, the site that was once part of pioneer George Pullman’s railcar company is now owned and managed by the National Park Service.
The facility is the centerpiece of a lush park that includes a front entrance and seating area next to the ruins of the Pullman factory that was gutted by a fire decades ago.
The center itself is a museum filled with exhibits, artifacts and photographs that tell the story of a once-successful business that helped make Chicago the capital of the labor union movement and the birthplace of the Labor Day holiday.
For Black visitors, the highlight of the museum is a large exhibit that tells the story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a group of Black rail car attendants who endured long hours and overt racism to become the nation’s first Black labor union in 1937.
The exhibit has a picture and quote of the group’s founder, labor pioneer A. Philip Randolph, who went on to become a member of the “Big Six” in the Civil Rights Movement.
The exhibit also includes photographs of Black Pullman car porters in their uniforms. Several photographs show the porters serving Pullman passengers, and there are pieces of luggage and an original ladder that the porters used on the job.
The exhibit also mentions the unsung contributions of Black women who worked as Pullman laundry workers, maids and female attendants, who are rarely mentioned in brochures and history books. The exhibit says for some Black women, laboring on railroad cars could be a better alternative to cooking or cleaning for families in private households.
Though their jobs were difficult, Black Pullman porters became highly respected middle-class members of their community at a time when there were few economic and employment opportunities for Blacks. Many lived in the Chatham neighborhood and owned homes on its tree-lined streets.
But one large caption at the new exhibit reads “Pullman Porters: Opportunity or Exploitation?”
George Pullman was notorious for paying his employees low wages for working long hours in tough conditions. Black Pullman porters spent days on the job and away from their families as they crisscrossed the country to make a living.
On the job, they kept Pullman’s luxurious railcars clean and provided white wealthy passengers first class service. During their shifts, many were forced to remain loyal and hospitable to white passengers who directed demeaning and racial slurs at them.
The interests and concerns of Black Pullman Porters were often ignored by white labor union leaders, many of whom wouldn’t allow them to join their organizations.
Despite their struggles, Black Pullman porters considered George Pullman an important ally to the Black community for giving Black workers a chance to make a living when many couldn’t get jobs at other companies.
When the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was formed in New York City in 1925, the historic event gave hope not only to Black Pullman porters but Black employees who faced racism and discrimination at companies across America. However, it wasn’t recognized as an official union until 1937.
Forty-four percent of the Pullman workforce was comprised of porters, making Pullman the nation’s largest employer of African Americans. Like other business barons in conflict with laborers, George Pullman did not like the new Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. He reportedly tried to undermine the union as more Black leaders and newspaper editors began to view George Pullman as a paternal figure whose leadership fueled a master-slave working relationship.
Despite its initial struggles, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Black labor union signaled a rise in Black advancement in business in America.