In 1879 White industrialist George Pullman bought 4,000 acres of land just South of Chicago. He spent the next ten years building a fully-functional independent “factory town” for wanderers and otherwise unskilled laborers to make a life within. The mainstay industry of the area was manufacture of Pullman “sleeper” cars for the day’s freight travel and tourism. To be a Pullman Porter was no ordinary wait-staff position. The largely African-American male population hired to service the businessmen and their families aboard sometimes transnational voyages worked as in the equivalent of Michelin-starred restaurants, with grueling standards of decorum and strenuous guidelines to account for their healthy salaries in the nation’s and company’s better days- such a stable draw many men migrated their families to the Pullman area for the promise of homes and college tuition payments. At one point, the Pullman Company with Pullman Palace Cars was the 2nd-largest employer of African-Americans in the nation.
After Pullman died and amidst the next and greater Depression, residents braving the economy formed the first African-American union: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, based on their proud status as concierges and waiters aboard the high-class sleeping cars Amtrak created to encourage American travel and boost the economy. This set up a volatile period of race rioting when the first Depression caused his successor to raise rents and otherwise penalize poor or black residents for Pullman’s company deficits. Pullman’s chief business successor was Robert Todd Lincoln. He created brutal conditions (at one point, a “tip-system” of wages) to return the company to profitability after Pullman’s death. Even in volatile racial climates, the Pullman Porters remained highly-respected leaders in their communities and even requested staff for more regular train travelers before the age of air travel.
On a recent visit to Chicago this Black History Month, President Obama declared this resilient community from which these men came a National Historic Monument, to be overseen and preserved by the National Parks Service. This measure will ignite commerce in the Pullman District, restore old buildings and bring tourism to such local darlings as its Hotel Florence and Pullman State Historic Site Museum.
Obama Calls Chicago’s Pullman District a ‘Milestone’ in US Journey– Voice of America
From factory town to national monument: A brief history of the Pullman Historic District- Chicago Tribune
Chicago’s Historic Pullman Becomes National Monument – NPR