Fighting for equality on the rails

Pullman Porters in Chicago, 1943.
South of downtown Chicago lies the city’s Pullman neighborhood. At its center is Illinois’ second National Park Service site: a monument to an effort to revolutionize the way companies and their employees lived and interacted. While it failed in its effort to create an ideal community for the company’s workers, Pullman did become an epicenter in both the labor and civil rights movements which changed the nation forever.

Born in New York in 1831, George Pullman was a builder from the start. His father worked on the Erie Canal and even invented a tool to use jackscrews to move entire buildings out of the canal’s path. When he died in 1853, young George picked up right where he left off, heading the family business and moving 20 more buildings to allow the canal to come through.

In 1857 he came to Chicago, where it was clear that his skill was desperately needed. The city leaders envisioned a grand metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan, but found that the swampy ground made it difficult to build. By jacking up the buildings, Pullman found a way not only to construct large structures, but also to build the kind of water and sewer system a large city would require.

By this time, Chicago was a railroad town, quickly becoming the primary rail junction of the central United States. The future, Pullman saw, was in railroads, especially in comfortable passenger rail cars, and in 1859 he unveiled the first luxurious Pullman sleeper car. The new accommodations were an immediate hit, far superior to the cramped, dirty and poorly-ventilated sleeper cars on other rail lines. Several Pullman cars were even included in the funeral train which brought Abraham Lincoln’s body back to Illinois in 1865.

Business boomed after the end of the Civil War, and by 1879 the Pullman Palace Car Company had manufactured more than 400 sleeper cars, and had diversified into refrigerated freight cars and streetcars. It was also that year that Pullman began working on his idea for a planned community where his employees would live, work and socialize. Inspired by similar communities in Europe, he purchased a 4000 acre parcel of land near his Chicago factory and began building the town of Pullman.

Chicago, 1893.
When it opened on January 1, 1881, Pullman had 1300 buildings, which included workers’ housing, as well as a library, stores, churches and theaters. Many of the streets were named for famed inventors. It also had 30,000 trees, daily garbage collection, a park, an administration building and a grand hotel named for his daughter, Florence (a future First Lady of Illinois). In all, the town cost $8 million to build. It would be devoid of saloons, a red-light district or any other factors which Pullman saw as being detrimental to the kind of harmony he hoped to foster.

But this vision also excluded organizers for the burgeoning labor movement which was gaining such appeal in Chicago in the late 19th century. He also banned town meetings or independent newspapers, and turned a deaf ear to complaints or discussion. Town officials were chosen by Pullman himself, except for an elected school board. Company executives lived in nice houses, while workers lower in the hierarchy were quartered in tenements or rooming houses.

The accommodations were often better than the kind of living conditions workers could find elsewhere in the city, but the rent was higher and came with strings attached. To enforce his standards of cleanliness, company inspectors would often barge into homes and punish violators with eviction notices. The course was set for confrontation, and when Pullman responded to an economic slowdown in the early 1890s by cutting wages and increasing hours (with no decrease in rents or prices in company-run stores), matters came to a head.

Workers began joining the American Railway Union (ARU) and presented Pullman with their grievances. He had them all fired. Other workers responded by going on strike in May 1894, with labor activist Eugene Debs leading the movement, which hit Pullman facilities not just in Illinois but throughout the country.

Governor John Altgeld refused to activate the state militia to put down the strike. Instead, the U.S. Attorney General got a court order to demand an end to any actions by strikers which were impeding the U.S. Mail, and President Grover Cleveland used 2500 federal troops to enforce the order. Altgeld then reversed course and called out the militia. The strike ended a few days later.

Pullman strikers and National Guard members outside
the Arcade Building in Chicago, 1894.
As the economy improved in the years after the strike, business picked up again. Pullman died in 1897. He was succeeded as President of the company by Robert Lincoln, the former President’s oldest son. But while business improved, the town of Pullman found its days numbered as residents chafed under the tight leash of the company’s rules, and in 1907 it was absorbed by the city of Chicago.

The early 20th century was a golden age for railroads and those who manufactured trains. The Pullman Company was no exception. It peaked in 1925 with close to 10,000 cars and tens of thousands of employees. Many of these employees were African-American. In fact, the Pullman Company was one of the nation’s largest employers of African-Americans during this time period.

The company’s workforce included more than 12,000 “Pullman Porters,” employees who assisted sleeping car passengers during their journeys. The Pullman Company has been credited with helping to promote an African-American middle class, offering decent-paying jobs to African-Americans throughout the country. But all was not as it seemed, and numerous problems still remained. Many of the porters were actually so poorly paid that they had to depend on tips to supplement their income. One study found that they worked more than 70 hours a week for about half the wage of employees in manufacturing firms. They also were made to pay for their own uniforms and accommodations while on the job. Porters could not be promoted to more prestigious jobs such as conductors, but they did occasionally perform the same duties.

In 1925, a group of porters fed up with these conditions reached out to labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, who had organized elevator operators in New York and shipyard workers in Virginia. Under Randolph’s leadership, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was organized that year to demand better working conditions for the Pullman Porters. Their efforts in Illinois were greatly aided by a former 20-year Pullman porter turned Chicago ward captain named Milton Price Webster.

The BSCP fought on two fronts, seeking better working conditions for employees, while also battling for civil rights for African-Americans, including within the labor movement itself; which had not accepted African-American workers into the ARU around the time of the 1894 strike. They attained some successes; including seeing the BSCP become the first African-American labor union to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor; but they also struggled mightily. Pullman fought the union vigorously for ten years, including during an unsuccessful attempt to call a strike in 1928.

Finally, in 1935, aided by changes to federal labor law for which the BSCP had advocated, the union was certified as the official representative of the Pullman porters and began negotiating a contract with the company. In 1937, the BSCP and Pullman reached an agreement which increased wages, limited hours, required overtime pay and removed the requirement that porters pay for their own uniforms. The agreement was celebrated by the NAACP and others as the first major labor agreement between a company and a largely African-American union.

Randolph went on to become one of the leading civil rights activists in the nation, using his enormous influence to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to prohibit racial discrimination in defense plants during World War II, and pushing for the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. After the war he advocated for the de-segregation of the entire United States military, something which was achieved through an Executive Order from President Harry Truman in 1947. Randolph led the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph died in 1979.

A. Philip Randolph and other leaders during the March on Washington. 

The Pullman Company and the BSCP fell on hard times after World War II, as automobile and air travel led to the decline of the rail industry in America. As passenger rail travel fell off, fewer rail cars were built and fewer porters were needed. The Pullman Company closed its doors in 1968, though its cars remained on the rails for decades after, and some of its spinoff companies went through a series of mergers and acquisitions and continue in some form or another today. Membership in the BSCP fell along with passenger rail employment and the union eventually merged into what is now known as the Transportation Communications International Union.

After the town of Pullman was annexed into Chicago, many of its buildings remained, including the large hotel. But by 1960 developers had their eyes on the plot of land as the site of a possible industrial park. When word got out about plans to demolish many of the buildings, a local community group, the Pullman Civic Organization (PCO) went into action to preserve the historic neighborhood. The PCO set in motion a nearly 60-year campaign to preserve the Pullman neighborhood and its history.

In 1969, the remaining buildings were put on the National Register of Historic Places and the area was declared a National Historic Landmark, followed by a similar recognition from the city of Chicago in 1972. The PCO worked to restore many of the houses, helped along by a separate group, the Historic Pullman Foundation, which purchased some of the larger buildings.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency purchased the hotel and administration buildings in 1991 and began a restoration effort, but an arson fire seven years later set the attempt back. Finally, in February 2015, President Barack Obama accepted the Pullman National Monument into the National Park Service system, making it the first NPS site in Chicago and the second in Illinois, along with Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield.

Just up the street from the National Monument is the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, a site recognizing the nationwide struggle for labor and civil rights which won some of its earliest victories here in Illinois.