On Train Cars and Porters


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May 12th 2018
Published: May 12th 2018
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Pullman National Monument, Pullman, Illinois

There is just one bucket-list stop in Illinois. Yes, it has two historic sites - the Lincoln Home and the Chicago Portage - but I did not include Historic Sites in my bucket list because they are usually small and there are so many of them that it would mean a lot of additional traveling. (I’ve been admonished by real ‘Park collectors’ that you can’t claim to be one of them unless you do every single NPS site, but, alas, we’ve already missed so many of them that it would be nearly impossible to make them up anyway. So, my bucket list remains as is! And so there !)

But there is a single National Monument in Illinois and we went there yesterday. It is located in a section of southern Chicago known as Pullman and is, in fact, called Pullman National Monument. It is a new park, established by Barack Obama just a few years ago, although pieces of the monument certainly predate its new status. Because it was going to take two trains to get there, we decided to drive and that turned out to be a good decision as it only took an hour to get there, and there was ample and free parking in the visitor center parking lot.

You may well have a basic understanding of this monument, as most people are generally familiar with the Pullman train cars. But my guess is that you may only know half of the story.

George Pullman first dabbled in Chicago real estate and managed to build up a bit of cash. Then, as the railroad started to go national in the late-1800’s, Pullman got the crazy idea that there was no reason people couldn’t travel the rails in comfort instead of ugly rows of stiff wooden benches (like our commuter and subway trains look now). He reasoned that people would be willing to pay good money to ride on plush furniture, eat at cloth-covered tables, and sleep in private beds dressed in white linens. And so, he took some of his money and built an assembly plant from the bottom up south of Chicago.

Pullman prided himself on being a progressive and, rather than just provide jobs to people, he wanted to create an entire self-sustaining town that would address all the needs of his workers. It was, in fact, an ideal of corporate socialism. And so he came to build an entire town with schools, churches, doctors, parks, restaurants, and shops. Reflecting his modesty, he called it Pullman and that is the name of this section of Chicago. (It isn’t clear to me whether it is now technically a ‘neighborhood’ of Chicago or is still a separate community.). Streets were laid out in wide but human-scaled grids. Housing consisted, largely, of modest, but totally adequate duplexes and nearly all of his employees could rent those units from his company. He hired the best teachers, and doctors he could find, and, although he still expected to turn a profit from his businesses, he always argued for the welfare of his employees.

His was one of the very first company towns and, in many respects, it became a model for all subsequent company towns. When times were good, his employees prospered and he did too. When times weren’t so good, like during economic downturns, he had to reduce wages and hours, but not rents, and his company town became very unhappy.

The 1890s saw one of those downturns and many of his employees turned to unions for help, which he fought with a vengeance worthy of the Koch brothers. He hired spies to monitor their employees and infiltrate organizing meetings. And they quickly fired anyone who they suspected as sympathizing with the unions. Pullman is famous for how they fought the unions off and became models for anti-union forces across the country. Why, they argued, did their workers need a union when the company was providing everything they needed. They even came up with the tactic of creating their own union in order to pre-empt any other efforts. They had the perfect little operation and weren’t up for anyone to spoil it.

All of this information is preserved at the Pullman National Monument. The film at the visitor center is a good one and the walking tour around the neighborhood identifies churches, shops, and markets that were all provided for their tenants. The neighborhood is currently undergoing quite the ‘gentrification’ as many of the duplexes are being remodeled inside and spruced up on the outside. The monument itself seems to be attracting a large amount of private funding (lord knows the current administration isn’t funding these efforts) and many of the corporate buildings, such as the
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The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
Florence Hotel and the main clocktower and administration building are undergoing major renovations with additional exhibits and buildings available for tour in the next few years. The monument preserving Pullman’s corporate socialism tell quite the story.

But they don’t tell the full story and one of the key strengths of this national monument is that it is partnered with another institution in the monument, the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which is a small operation housed in an adaptive re-use original Pullman-three story apartment building. A larger than life photo mural of A. Philip Randolph surrounded by a group of firemen and porters is on the side of the building. The museum is six blocks north from the main visitor center. It has a small parking lot which we missed driving by the first time, and, when we went there, on a Friday, no-one else was there except the Executive Director of the museum, David Peterson. We watched the movie there, toured the small collection of posters and exhibits, and spent time talking to Mr. Peterson who displayed nothing but enthusiasm and dedication to the museum’s mission.

Just based on names, you might be starting to piece together this part of the story. Pullman’s business model for his railroad cars was not to sell them to the railroads at all. Instead, he leased them, retaining full ownership and control over the cars and the image they presented. The key part of that image was that riding in a Pullman car was a luxury experience and that riders were fully expected to be lavished with services. Their beds would be turned down at night, their food would be delivered perfectly warm, and their napkins would be picked up if they fell on the floor.

And who would provide all that service, why the ‘Pullman Porter’. These men, and they were always men, rode the trains and did nothing but service the riders. Serving food, polishing shoes, making beds - they delivered a level of service that was unequaled in the hospitality industry. Riding a Pullman car became the ultimate travel experience largely because of the porters.

But the life of a porter was not an easy one. They didn’t sleep in beds, but rather on benches in the smoking cars, and only in four hour shifts between 10 pm and 6 am. They were paid minimum
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Duplexes for Rent in Pullman
wage and expected to work 20 hour days. And they were expected to defer, at all times, to the train riders - they were servants to their paying masters.

And who exactly could they get to work these kinds of hours and under those conditions? In one of those curious synchronicities of time, the railroads began to take off about the same time that slaves were freed. And so here was an entire population of people who were used to providing service, working under obscene working conditions, and getting little or no pay for it. Pullman seized the day and offered the job of ‘Pullman Porter’ to newly-freed black men from the South. And so the porter job became identified with the black man.

In many ways, it worked to the black man’s advantage. It was a job, after all, and did pay a consistent, if low, wage. And because the job didn’t disappear, being a Pullman Porter brought a bit of status and respect to the man holding that job.

But did he partake of the rest of Pullman ‘corporate socialism’? Not on your life. Porters were black, after all. They were not allowed to rent corporate housing, even if they could have afforded it. They were not welcome in the Pullman town and most of the porter families lived in sprawling ghettos in other parts of Chicago. They were an integral part of the Pullman train ride experience, but not a part of the Pullman community at all.

Possibly it was that alienation that caused Pullman to underestimate them, because the story of the Pullman Porter museum is how the ‘Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ became the first union to bust Pullman. It is a fascinating story of successes and failures and how, using cunning and occasional deceit, the porters managed to secure a union, boosted their wages, and bettered their working conditions. it is a story of how their wives would hold many of the meetings, while their husbands were ‘clocked in’, so corporate management had no idea what was going on.

But there is an even bigger story here. While Randolph was organizing the Brotherhood he reached out, unsuccessfully to other black leaders for help. As the museum tells the story, only one black preacher responded to Randolphs pleas - Martin Luther King Jr. And so the Porter Brotherhood became one of the early success stories in the entire civil rights movement.

And to bring the whole thing full circle. Remember that it was Barack Obama who created the monument.

(I’d like to extend my appreciation to the Pullman Porter Museum and David Peterson for everything they are doing and for an inspiring story.)


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The Methodist Church in Pullman
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David Peterson at the Pullman Porter Museum


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