#954: The Long Ride of the Pullman Porter

July 16th, 2018

“Daddy,” the little girl said, lolling in her father’s lap. “Is this going to be a long one?”

He shushed her gently as the movie and several more questions began. Eventually, he let her go to scamper through the house-museum and run up and down the, in her words, “too many stairs!”

The room went quiet. Black history was about to begin.

In Pullman, a former factory town where the men who built a country’s-worth of sleeping cars lived in an environment made to keep George Pullman’s workers union-free, there lives a monument to his failure. In a small three-flat next door to a Pullman-factory-turned-affordable-housing-complex sits the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, dedicated to the first black union to win a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation.

The museum was founded in 1995 by Dr. Lyn Hughes to celebrate The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Formed in 1925, the Brotherhood was a union formed to represent the black men who worked the luxury sleeping cars that sped across the country in style. Running helpmeet on everything from serving meals to shining shoes and turning over linens, the porters themselves worked 20-hour days for pittances, catching odd moments of sleep on hard benches when the white passengers couldn’t see them, paying for their own meals from the kitchens they staffed.

The museum is small but rife with history. An old porter uniform, punch cards, art depicting the union’s rise. Framed Harlem Renaissance magazines trumpeting the union’s wins. Replica fliers and handbills giving testimony to the days not as triumphant.

In a nice, subversive twist, the museum was placed not in the Black Belt district where the porters lived, but in Pullman itself, which after incorporation into Chicago became racially restricted, bound by covenants that barred black residency.

Now, a neighborhood the porters were kept from houses a museum in their honor.

“Some see it as a badge of honor,” a wiry, moderately tattooed man I later found out was the museum’s executive director told me.

I arrived alongside a family reunion. Scampering kids, tired-eyed dads and nodding matrons wandering amid their history. Aside from the little girl’s questions, we sat in mostly silence on the third floor during a video about the Brotherhood’s story, some offering angered exhales or the shaking of a head hearing stories of injustices and indignities that rang too familiar.

After the film, the reunion wandered the halls. They read framed articles and pelted the executive director with questions. He answered all with a confident gaze and a small smile. Some children edged nervously up to the porter uniform, while others posed for photographs with their brand-new golden Junior Ranger sticker-badges. Then the family retreated to the bus they’d chartered to head out for a local lunch.

The little girl who wanted to know if the movie would be long was smiling as she left. No, she might not remember this day. She might not recall specifics or dates or be able to tell anyone offhand what exactly a sleeping car porter did or why the Brotherhood was so influential and vital in the twin battles for civil rights and labor representation.

But the little girl will remember a happy day with family. She’ll remember smiles and lunch and too many stairs.

She’ll remember that there’s a museum dedicated to people who look like her. And she’ll remember it brought her joy.

Visit the Pullman porter museum

Visit an Englewood arts center

And a haunting exhibit dedicated to Harold Washington

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You are currently reading #954: The Long Ride of the Pullman Porter by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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