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Chicago Museum Expansion will Highlight Key Role of Pullman Porters in Black History

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tags: African American history, labor history, Pullman Porters



After Lyn Hughes took a walking tour of Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood in 1990, she decided to create a museum around its critical connection to the Black labor movement. At the time, she didn’t know much about the museum business. But she saw a need.

“I just thought that there ought to be some place in Pullman that talked about the African American experience, and I was appalled that nobody was doing that,” Hughes said.

Five years later, Hughes founded the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in a humble brick house. That would be just the beginning of a long battle to bring more recognition to the Black men who were the masters of hospitality on America’s most luxurious railroad cars in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Federal efforts to designate Pullman as a national monument took off during the Obama administration, but the spotlight was trained on the southern end of the neighborhood, founder George Pullman and the railroad car factory. Hughes’ museum about porters was sometimes overlooked.

Now, Hughes and other museum leaders aim to change that, announcing plans last month to expand while creating a new cultural district that would draw tourists and boost local employment.

For Hughes, the whole story began when she chanced upon that walking tour of Pullman, a Far South Side neighborhood that started in 1881 as one of America’s most prominent company towns — a residential district for the workers who made railroad cars at Pullman’s factory.

In 1990, Hughes had recently moved to Chicago from her native Cincinnati and was looking for buildings to purchase. The 77-year-old, who holds a Ph.D. in education with a minor in museum studies from Northern Illinois University, had previously worked in real estate.

Someone had told her Pullman’s north end was a good place to find buildings that could be rehabbed and resold. She stopped inside one of the area’s most majestic old buildings, the former Hotel Florence, for lunch. She overheard some people at the next table talking about a walking tour and decided to sign up.

Hughes said she was the only African American on that walk, where she was fascinated to learn about Pullman’s distinctive architecture and its history — stories such as the 1894 strike by the factory’s white workers, who included many immigrants from Europe. The strike paralyzed rail traffic and prompted clashes with federal troops in one of the country’s biggest and most tumultuous labor battles.

But as that walking tour ended, Hughes asked, “Can you tell me what role African Americans played in the Pullman story?” According to Hughes, the tour guide had little to say. “He responded by saying, ‘Well, I think they worked on the trains,’” she recalled.

Determined to learn more, Hughes went to a Chicago Public Library branch and checked out “A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter,” a 1989 book for young adults by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack.

“I found myself weeping out loud,” Hughes said. “It touched me in a way that changed the trajectory of my life. Why didn’t he [the tour guide] share that information?”

Read entire article at Chicago Sun-Times

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