Pullman’s Porters: A new exhibit at the Hotel Florence looks back on the everyday struggles of Chicago’s famous African-American workers

Hotel Florence, by Ellis Calvin

In 1916 the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters “George” (SPCSCPG) was founded by a wealthy Chicagoan, George William Dulany, Jr. Over the following two decades the society’s ranks swelled to over 30,000 people, all named George and including French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, George Herman “Babe” Ruth, and King George II of Greece. The SPCSCPG was partly a half-joking expression of the annoyance the Georges felt at sharing a nickname with the African-Americans who staffed the Pullman Company’s sleeping cars. However, there were those among the society’s Georges who saw and objected to the racism involved in the practice; in the antebellum South slaves were often called by their masters’ first names, and the Pullman Porters were viewed as something like the slaves of George Pullman.

In 1880 George Pullman bought several thousand acres of land next to Lake Calumet in Hyde Park Township, about thirteen miles south of what was then the Chicago border. As there was not enough housing nearby to support the thousands of workers required for Pullman’s factories, he decided to include an entire town in his building plan, to be named Pullman. This kind of ambition was nothing new to George Pullman. In the 1860s he developed the sleeping car that would make his name famous after an uncomfortable cross-country train ride. The Pullman sleeper, or “palace car,” was comfortable to the point of luxurious, but it was too large to fit into standard stations or onto railroad bridges. Pullman’s design succeeded so spectacularly only because First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, exhausted and grieving after the death of her husband, insisted that one of Pullman’s comfortable cars be attached to the funeral procession carrying the President’s body on the final leg from Washington to Springfield. At the last minute stations and bridges along the way were raised and widened, and the publicity created enough demand for the “Pullman Palace Car” that railroads elsewhere in the country made the necessary adjustments and placed their orders.

The railroads leased the Pullman cars rather than buying them, both because this arrangement required less capital on the railroad’s part and because this allowed Pullman to maintain more control over his product. The standardized cars built and operated by the Pullman Palace Car Company included both mechanical and human components. The Pullman Porters were mostly drawn from among freed slaves and their descendants who had left their plantations and traveled north to Chicago. Although they formed an integral part of Pullman’s company, which was the fourth-largest employer of African-Americans in Illinois, they were not allowed to live in Pullman. Instead they lived in surrounding areas as far away as Bronzeville. The few blacks employed in Pullman were mostly servers at the Hotel Florence, which served as the heart and headquarters of the town.

The Hotel Florence, named for Pullman’s favorite daughter, still stands almost 130 years later, although now at the intersection of East 111th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue rather than Florence Boulevard and Pullman Avenue. Now known as the Pullman State Historic Site, it includes temporary and permanent exhibits as well as community spaces. The current temporary exhibit, which opened last Friday and runs through the end of Black History Month, is titled “Every Day a Struggle: African Americans and the Pullman Experience 1900 to 1930.” The exhibit is illustrated with period photographs, record covers and cartoons, and draws heavily on the archives of the Chicago Defender, once the country’s largest black weekly newspaper.

The period covered by the exhibit properly begins a few years before 1900, with the death of George Pullman in 1897. Pullman had been beloved by his black employees for offering a huge volume of well-paying jobs at a time when racism, illiteracy and poverty made it difficult for African-Americans to catch a break. He had also been a generous supporter of the Republican Party and an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln and his family. After Pullman’s death, Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, a former Secretary of War and Ambassador to Great Britain, was chosen by the board of directors to be the new president. Lincoln found himself at the head of a hugely overextended company facing a “crisis of identity,” in the words of Paul Petraitis, a local historian who did much of the research for the exhibit at the Hotel Florence. At the time of Pullman’s death, his company’s holdings on its land south of Chicago included a forge, an oatmeal factory, and four streetcars of which only three could be located. All of this had led to both the company’s teetering financial situation and a court decision that the company’s interpretation of its charter was too broad. The result, Petraitis explains, was “a yard sale at the world’s most perfect town”–a reference to the honor bestowed upon Pullman at the Prague International Hygienic and Pharmaceutical Exposition of 1896.

Selling off the company’s miscellaneous property wasn’t enough (the three streetcars sold for one dollar), nor did it suffice to turn over control of the company town to the city of Chicago. Lincoln decided to cut the porters’ wages by almost twenty percent. This put their income at below subsistence level, but Lincoln decided that the porters could make the rest through tips from customers. The bitter fight over this decision is reflected in many of the Defender articles on the walls of the Hotel Florence. In late 1800s America, tipping was far from a routine practice. Furthermore, porters now had to pay for their own meals, lodging and uniforms, and as their wages were cut their duties increased. They were now responsible for setting up and taking down the sleeping cars, shining shoes, making beds, and cleaning linens.

The porters also had to deal with casual racism on a daily basis, which ranged from verbal abuse to physical attacks. The Defender zealously reported the more egregious incidents, including one in which Senator William J. Stone of Mississippi shot at and tried to kill L.T. Brown, a porter on a Pennsylvania Railroad train. Stone had called Brown by a racial epithet and ordered him to fetch a glass of whiskey, which the porter apparently balked at. Stone then slapped Brown and fired a bullet at him, grazing his shoulder.

The Defender included many stories of interest to Pullman Porters, since it was through them that it was carried outside of Chicago to black readers in the East and South. The porters helped make the Defender the most influential paper in Black America, and by 1917 more than two thirds of the paper’s readership was outside Chicago. The Defender’s heavy railroad coverage included more than just news stories. One Defender article on display is titled “Sparks from the Rail: Winston’s Spicy Gossip of Men and Events in the Railroad World” by John R. Winston. Many of these spicy gossip items appear incomprehensible to anyone outside the world of early 20th century sleeping car porters. One of the more comprehensible items: “Sporting Dick Weeks won a match $100 [sic] horse race Saturday, May 31, at Oelwein, Ia., race tracks and some cracker wanted to lynch him because he beat the white boys out in the hurdle. Richard Weeks is a colored boy from Kentucky and is very clever and has many railroad friends.”

The exhibit ends with a section titled “Fighting Back” on the 1925 founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which twelve years later would win its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company. By that time the company was declining, and in 1944 the manufacturing division and the sleeping car operations division were separated by court order. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters would go on to play a large role in the civil rights movement, and its leader A. Philip Randolph helped win the fight to desegregate the army and defense contractors during World War II. It’s fitting that this history of struggle should end with a Black History Month exhibit on the Pullman Company in the Hotel Florence, the heart of the company town that wouldn’t let blacks in.