Pullman is many things: a vibrant South Side neighborhood that was constructed as the first model industrial community in the country; one of the most important sites in the history of American labor, civil rights, and transportation; and most recently, Chicago’s first and only national park.
Pullman National Monument celebrated the grand opening of its new visitor center, housed in its historic clock tower, this September. New exhibitions will help tell the story of Pullman—or rather, the many intersecting stories that comprise this place.
There’s the figure of George Pullman, who in 1880 created the company town to house workers of his Pullman Palace Car Company, which made luxury railroad sleeper cars and was at the time the largest manufacturing company in the world.
There’s the Strike of 1894, when workers walked off the job to protest cuts to their wages while their rent, which they paid to Pullman, remained the same. The National Guard was deployed to break up what had become a major national strike; some troops shot and killed workers in violent clashes. Labor Day was declared a national holiday shortly thereafter, in a gesture of reconciliation toward the labor movement.
There are the porters who serviced the Pullman train cars, some of the first of whom were formerly enslaved Black men from the South, and who formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the country’s first all-Black union, in 1925. The Brotherhood, and its founder A. Phillip Randolph, played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Now, many hope that the site’s newest chapter as the Pullman National Monument Visitor Center and State Historic Site will provide a springboard for economic revitalization in the surrounding neighborhood.
National Park Service rangers help visitors from Chicago and afar enjoy and understand Pullman. The Weekly spoke with Ve’Amber Miller, who has been a park guide at Pullman since 2017. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to be a park guide at Pullman?
I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, specifically in Matteson, but my family, my grandmother and my mom all kind of lived in Chicago before then. Our church was on the South Side and I always had family here.
I went to Cornell College in Iowa to get my bachelor’s degree in archeology and English. [After graduation] I ended up finding this internship with the Student Conservation Association, which is this organization that partners with the National Park Service, and so I ended up going all the way to Connecticut [to] Weir Farm National Historic Site, which is now National Historic Park, where I did my museum services internship for ten months.
While I was there, they’re like, “So you’re from Chicago, did you know there’s a national park in Chicago?” Through my internship I was able to get enough hours to get priority to get a job here at Pullman, and that’s how I was able to wear this ranger uniform, which has been a very fun journey, because beforehand, the National Park Service was not on my radar at all in terms of careers. And since then, it’s also inspired me to get my master’s in public history.
Tell us about the new visitor center.
We were sharing a space with our partner, the Historic Pullman Foundation, but now we have moved out of Mom’s basement, I suppose, and moved into our own building. So, this is where everyone starts, but we want visitors to come to explore all of our partners here in the neighborhood, including Historic Pullman Foundation’s exhibit hall, but also the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum and a variety of other different things happening in the neighborhood that will be coming up in the spring. Our idea is to introduce these stories that are connected to Pullman and then send people off to learn more and explore more.
What do your duties entail?
My every-day is to greet visitors as they come here to the visitor center, but also to tell this really complex story, and we want to start giving tours and ranger programs that help people explore all of those different things, like labor and race and architecture. My job is also to help reach out to the community, to go to events around the neighborhood in Pullman and Roseland. We also do events with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and we also try to get connected to schools—we love schools, we want them to visit us and we’re happy to visit them. And my own little particular duties are helping with social media and web content.
What are some of your favorite parts of what you do, and what’s special about being at Pullman in particular?
My favorite thing is the people. And so that not only involves the visitors who come from all over, from different states and different countries, but also interacting with our partners and volunteers. Something very special about Pullman in particular is that there are a lot of people who are very passionate about telling the story and telling it right. When we’re having tours in the neighborhood and things like that, we sometimes even have our neighbors inviting people into their homes, they’re like, “Do you want to see a historic home?” And they’re passionate about it too, so the passion that you find in this community is just very unique for where I am, and also the story itself is very special.
The phrase I like to use is: All tracks lead to Pullman. So, the Pullman Company was the company that was known for making these luxurious train cars. The neighborhood of Pullman was built in the 1880s, and the strike of 1894 was a large national strike that would inspire and influence us having Labor Day as a national holiday, and then also the workers who crafted and made the cars, and the Pullman porters who were African-American men who serviced the train cars and would have their own labor story with the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters—I mean all of that, all of that is what makes Pullman special.
These core stories expand so much of what we know now and that we deal with even in our everyday lives [with] unions and strikes and workers’ rights, something we’ve been talking a lot about in the past year, service workers and essential workers. Pullman is very special in that way. It’s not hard to find those connections to the present.
What can you glean from walking through Pullman that you can’t get from just studying it in a history book?
There’s been about a year and a half of us doing virtual programs and things like that, so I think a lot of people have come to appreciate in-person things. But also in terms of visiting Pullman specifically, I think a lot of people don’t understand [that] the monument is the entire neighborhood, and so when people get here, particularly when they start to visit the clock tower, they’re like “What’s the monument, exactly?” and we’re like, “What you just drove through to get here is the monument!” And so that scale, a lot of people right away, that hits them.
Now that we have the grounds open and renovated for the old manufacturing site, people can see the leftover remnants of that. So there’s this system called transfer tables and it’s this complex way of how they manufactured cars in an efficient and fast way. We sometimes compare it to a precursor to the Ford factory line, but it’s really hard to wrap your brain around if you’re not here on the site.
When you walk down the street past all of these historic buildings as well there’s a different sense. A lot of people describe walking through the neighborhood as taking a step back in time. It’s this magical experience that you just can’t have reading it in a book or looking at photos. It’s something that you have to physically be there for.
There’s been a lot of talk about economic revitalization in the neighborhood, and the new visitor center bringing in more tourist dollars. How do you see the park continuing to shape the surrounding neighborhood?
We already have a lot of visitors coming into the visitor center that immediately after they finish walking through the exhibits, they go, “So where’s the snack bar? Where’s the place to eat?” Kind of like if you went to the Field Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry they have all of that in there. But I think what we want to do is encourage people and the community to create those [economic] opportunities. It doesn’t just have to be provided by the National Park Service, it can be provided by someone else. And so looking to the community to really take that opportunity and jump on it. People are looking for places to shop and things to do for their kids. So many things that could come to fruition here. And I think some of it has already started here in the neighborhood and people are already taking that opportunity.
Why should visitors come to Pullman?
When I first got here I literally knew nothing about Pullman, even though I grew up nearby…When you come here you realize that you could have a personal connection to Pullman. It happens every day [that] someone walks through the door and they say ‘My grandfather worked in the shops’ or ‘my great-grandfather was a Pullman porter’ and I think those connections are so powerful.
I really do encourage people to come and find out what is their connection to Pullman, and how does that fit into their lives. Because there is a connection there somewhere, and I’m sure it would only help enrich their lives.The Pullman National Monument Visitor Center is located at 11001 S. Cottage Grove Avenue. It is open to the public daily from 9am – 5pm. Masks are required in all National Park Service buildings, and in crowded outdoor spaces, regardless of location or vaccination status.
Helena Duncan is a writer based in Hyde Park. She last wrote about the photography of LaToya Ruby Frazier for the Weekly.