Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The Pullman area of Chicago has been declared a national monument.
President Obama was in Chicago today to declare the Pullman neighborhood a national monument. The ceremony comes a year after lawmakers pushed for that designation for the industrial town as a means to revitalize the area. The town's significance in the history of the labor and civil rights movement is finally being recognized, though George Pullman's original plan in creating the town was to cut his workers off from that very struggle.
The industrialist Pullman, who owned Pullman Palace Car Co., purchased 4,000 acres of Chicago land in 1879 and converted 600 acres into America's first industrial town—full of factories, hotels, and worker housing, according to the Historic Pullman Foundation. The company was famous for their luxurious sleeper cars that offered train passengers all the comforts of home.
Rachel Bohlmann, head of the Independent NewBerry Library, tells CBS News that Pullman believed locating his factories away from Chicago would cut his workers off from all the unionizing happening in the city. Contrary to that belief, the town became the site of labor strife when Pullman dropped worker wages after the Great Depression. His white employees staged a strike that went national in 1894, with other train worker unions around the country joining in.
Of Pullman employees, the company's black porters had it the worst. George Pullman employed former slaves as in-house butlers who could cater to the needs of white passengers. He wanted the perfect servant, Larry Tye, author of Rising From the Rails tells the New York Times.
According to the Pullman Museum, the company was the second largest employer of African Americans in the United States by 1910. But black workers were paid miserably, worked in awful conditions, and were denied promotions given to their white counterparts. They weren't even allowed to live in the Pullman district while segregation laws applied, Bohlmann tells CBS News.
A 1910 article from The Chicago Defender notes these deplorable working conditions in an article called "Plea of the Pullman Porters":
But conditions began to change in 1925, when the Pullman porters succeeded in forming the first all-African American union under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph. Twelve years later that union, called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, won a collective bargaining agreement that secured better working conditions. That process helped lay the foundation of the black middle class, and the union ended up planting the seeds of the civil rights movement: former Pullman porter E.D. Nixon was behind the Montgomery bus boycott.
Nixon was also the one who recruited Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the boycott, which catapulted King to the forefront of the civil rights movement. In an interview with the New York Times, Nixon recalls his meeting with King: "I went to see him and said, 'You've got to take the lead in this thing.' "