The Crusader Newspaper Group

Serving while Black

There were fancy parties, luxurious suites, elegant fireplaces and classic staircases. For nearly 150 years, numerous stories have been written about the timeless beauty and aura of Pullman’s Hotel Florence. Since it was built at 111th and Forrestville in 1881, Queen Anne, Victorian-style brick and limestone building has impressed locals and visitors with its impeccable wood masonry and antique interiors that harken to a bygone era of world-class hotel living for the rich and famous.

It was once owned by wealthy Chicago industrialist and pioneer George Pullman, whose Pullman Palace Car Company helped create America’s first industrial town. Spread amid 600 acres were factories, hotels, and charming row houses built for his factory workers.

Pullman hired former slaves to serve as porters for his railroad cars. While the Pullman Palace Car Company became the second largest employer of Blacks in 1910, the Crusader has learned George Pullman also employed Blacks as servants in his exclusive Hotel Florence.

After 128 years of obscurity, the stories of those servants have been uncovered by a worker restoring the Hotel Florence at 11114 S. Forrestville Ave. in the Pullman community.

Among the servants were two Black men who served presidents and millionaires at a time when Blacks couldn’t stay at the hotel, or anywhere else in what is now the Pullman Historic District.

Again and again, their stories and identities were left out of news stories about Hotel Florence’s opulence and wealthy guests. Today, as the historic structure remains closed to the public during a long restoration effort, the buried achievements of William Wells and Arthur Wells have led Hotel Florence worker Martin Tuohy on a research project to give a balanced history of the Hotel Florence while giving an identity to people many never knew.

Hardworking employees, these were Black servants who George Pullman named as beneficiaries in his will after their years of loyalty and excellent service.

For the past year, Martin and a team of researchers have combed through old newspaper articles, documents and Census records to piece together the untold achievements and contributions of the men. It’s been a difficult job. Most major newspapers did not mention the names and stories of Black residents in their newspapers. That has made Martin’s project a long and difficult challenge while he helps restore the Hotel Florence.

The information they have collected, however, has made the research effort worthwhile.

The Crusader learned of the findings during a visit to the Hotel Florence as part of the grand opening of the new National Pullman Monument and Museum across the street.

The Hotel Florence remains closed during an ambitious restoration project that is expected to be completed by 2025. However, the historic building was open to the media in September as part of a weekend-long open house celebration of the Pullman Historic District, a group of buildings that Pullman himself built for his groundbreaking planned community where many of his factory workers lived, except for Blacks.

A Crusader journalist roamed the dining room as part of the open house celebration at the Hotel Florence. That’s when Martin, who was among several workers restoring the building’s windows, introduced himself.

He showed the Crusader journalist an old black and white photograph of five Black men standing in the same dining room where over 100 years ago they stood, well-dressed, over crisp white dining tables. It’s a photo that has appeared in several online blogs but in every instance, the impeccably dressed Black men are not identified. Whenever there’s an article about the Hotel Florence, there’s always the same photograph, but never a mention of the Black men in it.

As it turned out, Martin believes the two Black men in the foreground are William Wells and Arthur Wells. Martin is unable to identify either one. No publication has ever bothered to research their identity.

According to the Chicago History Museum, the photo was taken in 1893 from the book, “City of Brick.” The Chicago History Museum simply identifies the men as “waitstaff.”

Like most servants, they are employees who remain invisible as they serve guests. But newly uncovered data is generating fresh interest into the Wells’ servants, who rose to become successful businessmen from the segregated halls of the Hotel Florence.

According to Martin, they headed a group of about 30 servants from diverse backgrounds. Martin and his team are still researching their history, but here is what he knows about the Wells’ so far.

William Wells was George Pullman’s personal butler and when he was setting up the Hotel Florence, he deputized his most trusted people to work for him, Martin said. When he built the Hotel Florence in 1881, he deputized William Wells and Arthur Wells to help and manage the hotel. They had big tasks ahead of them.

When the Hotel Florence opened, it was an instant hit with the rich and famous from opening day on November 1, 1881. The hotel reportedly turned a profit the first year of its operation. Named after his oldest daughter, Florence Pullman, the hotel cost $100,000 to build. It had at least 50 rooms.

The first floor had a Ladies’ Parlor, and a dining room with a capacity of over 100; the remainder of the first-floor rooms were “men only,” with a reading room, barbershop, billiard room, bar, and office. Unaccompanied ladies who were guests in the hotel used the north entrance to the hotel.

Because there were no elevators, the second-floor rooms reportedly were designated first-class; the third floor, second class; and the fourth floor was considered third class with small, oddly shaped rooms that were perhaps for servants who accompanied guests to the hotel.

The dining room servants on the first floor reportedly served elegant and elaborate menus to guests that reportedly included

President Ulysses S. Grant and many notable Europeans. According to Martin, the famous guests were likely served by William and Arthur Wells. Martin said the two men may have been cousins.

Martin said the men were among 30 Hotel Florence servants who were as diverse as “the United Nations.”

“The back wing of the building most likely is where the people who lived in the building would stay,” Martin said.

“When you look at Census records to see who was actually living at the hotel but working here as the maid, as the linen girl, as the baker, you can start figuring out by looking at the floor plan, like how many white men were there and how many African American men were there. How many single women were there? And the rooms were sort of ranked by who had which job, not so much in a segregated way but more so in a functional way. So, if you had seen some of the TV shows, let’s say Downton Abbey, there’s Ms. Hughes, the Butler. They run the show.”

Martin also said that the two Black men were so successful, Pullman allowed the Wells’ to set up an entertainment center that included a restaurant that eventually expanded to the Arcade Building, which was demolished in 1926. The Wells’ restaurant and entertainment center was called Wells Brothers Restaurants and Billiards.

Martin is still researching information on the Wells’ and their business.

In researching the pair, the Crusader confirmed through the White House Historical Association that Arthur Wells went on to serve as a steward for President Grover Cleveland during his extensive, cross-country Goodwill Tour of 1887.

George Pullman and President Cleveland established a professional relationship after Pullman provided elegant railroad trains for Cleveland to travel to cities across the country. Cleveland, a Democrat, wanted to thwart efforts by Republicans to regain the White House after Cleveland was elected in 1884. Cleveland believed that a public tour would maintain a healthy bond with American voters.

The White House Historical Association said Pullman “insisted” to President Cleveland that he accept his “best steward,” Arthur Wells, to help achieve a successful tour.

Martin believes William Wells was listed as the head waiter and head butler.

“It’s in an 1883 city directory. It is in newspaper accounts that don’t necessarily name him, but they talk about him,” Martin said. “We find a lot of information in some of the local newspapers from the [former] Hyde Park township area, especially about William Wells that we do not find in other newspapers like the Chicago Tribune. So, there’s a lot of social commentary there. So, Mr. [William] Wells leaves here in the mid-1880s. He goes off to work in Atlanta as head of a hotel, and that’s something that we haven’t been able to research much because we haven’t been able to dig that deep.

Martin explained, “Most of our time is spent on the windows. We’re going to find a lot more.”

Martin said most Black men worked as waiters at least through the early 1900s. They were replaced by Filipino immigrant men by the 1920s and 1930s.

George Pullman died in 1897, years after a bitter strike eventually led to his loss of ownership of the Pullman Company he founded. Martin said when Pullman died in 1897, Pullman included William and Arthur Wells and William Johnson in his will.

The Crusader learned that this was also reported in a New York Times article on October 26, 1898. The article, titled “George Pullman’s Will,” reported that Pullman left Arthur Wells $5,000 and William $3,500, and William R. Johnson $2,000.

By today’s estimate, Arthur Wells’ $5,000 inheritance is equal to $167,428 and William Wells’ $3,500 inheritance is equal to $117,210.

Pullman left his twin sons George and Walter Sanger Pullman with a trust fund that generated just $3,500 a year for each after their publicized incidents of affairs, alcoholism and wild spending habits that led to their financial debts.

At the time of his death, the value of Pullman’s estate was listed at $7.6 million, which is nearly $255 million in 2021 when adjusted for inflation.

The New York Times reported that Pullman’s two daughters inherited the bulk of his estate, and his widow was given Pullman’s Victorian mansion at Prairie Avenue and 18th Street. She also received a lifetime inheritance of $1.25 million, equal to $41,859,638 in 2021.

Martin said William R. Johnson was Pullman’s postman, but that’s all he knows about him. And no information is available on the personal lives of William and Arthur Wells, including their educational backgrounds, families, siblings, birth and death dates.

“What has happened is that the same one-dimensional stories about these places have been told and re-told,” Martin said. “So, it’s like eating Swanson Salisbury Steak every night and you think that that’s all there is to the story. It’s hidden in plain sight like much African American history. It’s all there. We were able to find bits and pieces of it.”

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