History | Pullman

The Living Legacy of the Pullman Porters

The Pullman Porter Museum renews its push for a national registry

Armani Howard

In 1995, Dr. Lyn Hughes founded the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum to commemorate the thousands of African-American men who staffed Pullman sleeping cars for more than a century, between 1869 and 1969. Twenty-three years later, Hughes is convinced that the museum’s renewed attempt to catalogue the 20,000 descendants of these men will constitute her legacy. “Long after I’m gone,” she said, “it will be in history books. It will be part of the record that nobody can take away, no matter who’s mayor, no matter who’s alderman, no matter who’s president.”

For Hughes, the attempt to catalogue the porters’ descendants is an extension of a decades-long attempt by the Museum to shine a light on the legacy of the Pullman porters, whose descendants include Whoopi Goldberg, radio host Tom Joyner, and actress Taraji P. Henson. But the legacy of the Pullman porters is still being felt in other ways to which the museum draws attention. Their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was the first African-American labor organization chartered by the American Federation of Labor. E.D. Nixon, a Pullman porter, helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott and recruited Martin Luther King Jr. to lead it. Asa Philip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was one of the organizers of the 1940s March on Washington Movement.

Hughes created the national registry in 2000 to document the Pullman porters, but the project has since expanded to include those who had worked on the trains in other capacities, such as dining car waiters or brakemen. The museum launched an advertising campaign asking for surviving Pullman porters or their descendants to send information for the registry.

“We had no idea we would get as many entries as we did,” said David Peterson, the museum’s president and executive director, who assisted Hughes in publishing a print edition of the registry in 2007 while studying at Florida A&M University. “It was like five thousand entries, you know. Originally it was ten [thousand] or something like that. We had to break it down because some people were submitting from the same household and didn’t even know it.” (According to Hughes, an original 7,000 submitted entries were condensed to 3,500.)

The impetus to include the descendants of the sleeping car staff in the project originated from the “parade of descendants,” as Hughes put it, that came to visit the museum. People who had what Hughes described as a certain spirit or air about them that marked them as different would stop by. As they were leaving, they would invariably mention that their grandfather had been a Pullman porter. Hughes became interested in these descendants. She wanted to know how the experience of a man who had worked on the Pullman cars might have led him to impart certain traits, such as integrity and self-pride, to his family.

Both Hughes and Peterson would often discover that someone was the descendant of a Pullman porter in the middle of conversation. “It’s interesting when you talk to these people,” Hughes said, “how somewhere in the conversation you will hear how that person, that descendant, influenced them…. Those stories stuck with those kids. It’s just amazing how that happens, I can’t explain to you why. But I just know that it is a fact that the influence of those men has lasted for generations. That’s important enough to make sure that people in future generations get it.”

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Sometime around 2014, Hughes also had the idea to create a searchable online database of the registry, due in part to the hundreds of letters and emails that arrived every year from descendants who wanted to know if their relatives were on the registry. For several years, however, the task of digitizing the 7,000 entries on the registry outstripped the resources available to the museum, which operates without city, state, or federal grants, according to Hughes. “We don’t have the kind of political support, we don’t have the kind of political friends, and friends with money, who can make our work easier,” she said. “I was trying to figure out a way how to harness this work ’cause I’m getting older…. I have to consider my own mortality, and there’s a lot of, lot of, lot of hours that have gone into creating this registry that people would not normally do unless they got a grant to do it.”

The museum eventually found assistance from DePaul University. Hughes heard from a friend that DePaul sometimes adopts a nonprofit organization in order to lend it technological support, and submitted a proposal. In 2015, the University’s Irwin W. Stearns Center assigned a class from the College of Computing and Digital Media to digitize the registry, which went live in February 2016. Hughes hopes to finish adding to the registry by August 2020.

A year before the digitized registry went online, on February 19, 2015, President Obama designated the Pullman Historic District a national monument, bringing it into the National Park System. In a speech he made that day, he praised the legacy of the Pullman porters. One of the great-granddaughters of a Pullman porter, he told his audience, was now the First Lady of the United States of America—Michelle Obama.

“Him making that remark in the designation speech also then made my light bulb go on, and thinking, ‘This is exactly what I’m talking about,’ because you never know who is a descendant,” Hughes said. Once the registry was online, and with the attention that the 2015 designation and Obama’s speech had given to the porters and their descendants, Hughes began to consider renewing the museum’s focus on the descendants of the Pullman porters. She returned to the registry a year ago and noticed other prominent descendants she had singled out before. She has now begun reaching out to them, hoping that they might provide support for the registry.

“For me, [completing the registry] was so, so, so, so important. It is not just a media sound-bite. I’m talking [about] completing a body of work and leaving it as my legacy,” Hughes said. “I thought that the push from the descendants angle would be just the kind of thing that would help me repackage it and reposition it in a way that I could leave in perpetuity.”

Last year, David Peterson attended an event hosted by Google where he met JinJa Birkenbeuel, president and CEO of the digital strategy agency Birk Creative. He was, Birkenbeuel remembers, “armed” with magazines about the museum. She told Peterson that her grandfather had been a Pullman porter, and after that meeting the two kept in contact. On February 24, Birkenbeuel was honored as the first recipient of the Descendant of Distinction award at the museum’s Gentle Warrior Awards Gala. The award, which Hughes originally hoped Michelle Obama would sponsor, illustrates the museum’s new focus, and Birkenbeuel hopes that it will encourage the museum to find other descendants to contribute to the story of the Pullman porters.

Birkenbeuel’s maternal grandfather, Raymond Bruce, she says, began working as a porter before the Depression, and it remained his main employment until his death. Unusually for a Black railroad worker, he would on occasion fill in as a conductor, because his green eyes, light skin, and straight hair allowed him to pass. Birkenbeuel described her grandfather’s forays as a conductor as a double-edged sword. Many Pullman porters’ experiences can be described the same way. They were able to occupy positions of relative luxury within their communities while working under taxing and sometimes demeaning conditions.

Nonetheless, like many Pullman porters, Bruce was able to secure his family a dignified life that was rare for an African American person in those days, Birkenbeuel said. Her mother’s family had had amenities—such as television and indoor plumbing—that the white families in the community had lacked, Birkenbeuel’s mother and aunt told her. “They were raised very well,” she said. “That experience, that visual and that life, translated to my mother’s life, which translated to me.”

Talking about how such things are passed down through generations, Birkenbeuel said, “I feel like that’s probably some of the links that [Dr. Hughes is] making: that it’s really important for African Americans to have models and visuals and things throughout time to continue to move forward so that we don’t go backwards.”

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum has been in talks to receive resources from the National Park Service. Currently, Hughes is uncertain whether an agreement will be reached that would allow the museum to grow as she would like it. But she is optimistic that the museum, and its in-progress registry, will grow regardless, not only on the basis of its location within the Pullman National Monument, but because of the loyalty of its volunteers and young people’s growing awareness of the importance of the Pullman porters. “It’s a fusion of labor, human rights, and civil rights,” she told me. “[The] younger generation, millennials, understand why that’s important and what it means. There’s no room in that demographic for all the nonsense. ‘Cause you don’t care about that, and so thank God for you, because you will make the difference.”

As you walk along East 104th Street, you can see a mural on the wall of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. It’s a photograph of a group of the original Pullman porters. “It shows hard work and dedication, and that’s one of the things that I like to think that people get from walking past it,” Peterson told me. “There’s a gentleman, a young guy who said to me, ‘Man, every time I walk past, it just makes me want to put on a suit.’”

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Juan Caicedo is a contributor to the Weekly. Originally from Kamloops, British Columbia, he is an undergraduate student majoring in political science at the University of Chicago. He last wrote for the Weekly about the 2017 Urban Livestock Expo in February 2017.

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