The National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which sits across from Corliss High School on 104th and Maryland, occupies a unique space both citywide and nationwide. After twenty-one years in operation, it remains the only black history museum in the country to focus specifically on labor history.
Asa Philip Randolph, the museum’s namesake, is rarely seen in history textbooks, though the union which he led, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, fought for black workers’ rights under the Pullman Company and opened the door for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This is a history not taught in schools.
Yet George Pullman—the industrialist who created Pullman not only as a company town, but as “a total environment, superior to the working class elsewhere ”—has been more or less canonized, even if his “model community” was predicated on the exclusion and exploitation of the black workers which kept his “palace cars” on the rails.
In Pullman—the town, the company, and the individual—the nostalgia and idealism of Americana come in direct conflict with the parts of our history which hurt to remember.
I sat down with Dr. Lyn Hughes, the Pullman Porter Museum’s founder, to discuss the history and future of the museum and its community. Hughes, a Cincinnati native, first came to Chicago as a single mother of three with plans to develop real estate. This is the story of the museum in her words.
I mentioned that I was interested in doing some real estate speculating. And so the person I was talking to said, “You know where you ought to go, you ought to go out to Pullman and go to the north end, because it’s not as well kept as the south end and you can probably buy something a lot cheaper than you could on the south side [of Pullman].” So that’s how I got out here.
So one of the things that happened while I was doing due diligence: someone said to me, “They offer tours of the community on the south end, go over to the Hotel Florence. They have lunch and they have tours.” So I [went] on the tour, and there was a group of about twenty people, and I happened to be the only African American on the tour. So the docent was giving a great spiel about Pullman, all about George Pullman, and how he created this factory where he built sleeping cars, and that he built the town for the people who worked for him.
Well, I thought this [was] quite an interesting story, but in [its] telling, they did not mention anything about African Americans. And so—it was just a self-interest, human interest question—I raised my hand and I said, “Excuse me, can you tell me what role African Americans played in the Pullman story?”
And I was expecting him to say, “Well, they did that…” And he didn’t. When I asked the question, the room got very quiet. And [after] what ended for seeming like an eternity of time elapsing, he ultimately collected himself and said, “I think they worked on the trains.” I thought he was going to elaborate and say more, but he didn’t. It was awkward and very embarrassing, because I knew I had probably asked a question that no one had ever asked before.
So it was one of those embarrassing situations. I had one of those conversations with myself [and thought], “Be quiet, go to the library after the tour.” So I did, I left the tour. There used to be a library on 103rd Street, so I went in and asked the librarian what she could give me that I could read that would tell me about the African-American experience in Pullman. She said they didn’t have much, and they actually only had two books. One of the two had great photographs—I actually thought they were children’s books, but it wasn’t, it turns out that the one I chose was just a very thin book. It was called A Long, Hard Journey. And so I took the book, checked it out of the library, took it home—I lived in Hyde Park, still do—and I read the book cover to cover and I found myself weeping. The story told about the terrible treatment that the African Americans that worked for the Pullman company had. And it was just a very emotional experience. I like to describe it as a roller coaster of experiences, because I was angry, and then sad, you know? And it was like, how can this be?
I never intended to live here, I never intended to do a museum. But once I had the experience with the tour, and the docent that wouldn’t talk about African Americans, it awakened something in me that would not go away. And it nagged me and nagged me for almost a year, it just would not go away. I always say that it was not my idea because I’m not that smart. But one day, I just heard myself say I was going to create a museum.
I had no experience, I didn’t know anyone, and I certainly didn’t know anyone who started a museum. But it was one of those things that my mother used to say to me: “If you see something that needs to be done, don’t just stand there. Go do it.”
Twenty-one years later, the A. Philip Randolph Museum remains in operation. Hughes studied at Spertus College before securing a doctorate in education with a minor in museum studies at Northern Illinois University—a degree which she completed in just five years. Though Hughes still works closely with the museum, since 2009 its president and executive director has been David A. Peterson, a Pullman native who grew up on the same block as the museum and volunteered there while growing up.
In 2000, when the museum was still getting off the ground, Hughes launched the Pullman Porters National Historic Registry: an advertising campaign which called for photographs, documents, or other memorabilia from Pullman porters and their families. In a matter of months, she received 7,000 responses. The influx of mail took Hughes four years to process, but she says the sheer number of submissions was a “wake-up call.” In time, she compiled the responses into An Anthology of Respect, a book which featured a preface from Lerone Bennett. Earlier this year, the registry was digitized so that the name of any porter can be searched on the museum’s website.
One of the things that is always miswritten or inaccurate, is when they say that African-American history in Pullman is deep. It is not, because African-Americans were not permitted to live in Pullman. The history that is disseminated in Pullman is primarily done by a specific group of people. And it’s what I call the revisionist history. They often use the term “labor history”— but you’d be hard-pressed to read an [article] where they actually mention the name of this place, which is [not only] the only black labor representation in Pullman, but also the first black labor history museum in the nation. I don’t know if there are any others yet, but [the writing is] very carefully crafted. It talks about Pullman and it talks about labor history, and it will drop in: “Oh yeah, by the way, black labor.”
The one thing that infuriates me: I write letters to the editor and they never react or respond, which is why I was very interested in having this interview. Because at least it would be an opportunity to sort of get it right.
It is applicable today still, how labor and civil rights intersect. Because it’s not just civil rights, it’s human rights. There’s this triad of intersecting components that makes it very interesting, and which is why foreigners are interested. But also in a very real sense, it’s one of those 800-pound gorillas in the room that no one wants to talk about.
Racism is alive and well in America—and quite frankly, even still in this community. All you need to do is read the newspapers and articles that are written about Pullman. You will never, ever hear anything in-depth about the African-American population. It is not always what is said or done. It’s what isn’t.
Railroads, of course, are the very reason Pullman came into existence. Today, the neighborhood is connected to the rest of Chicago by the Metra Electric line. The 111th Street stop on its south end is, in the words of Metra CEO Don Orseno, “a gateway to the Pullman National Monument”: visitors are greeted by a newly renovated and freshly painted warming hut. The 103rd Street Rosemoor stop, on the other hand, is a “flag stop”—you have to tell your conductor in advance if you want to get off at all. On this platform, there are only a few recycling bins and a stairwell down to street level.
As subtle as these disparities are, for Hughes they reflect the preferential treatment given to Pullman’s predominantly white south end. Despite the fact that the Pullman National Monument has boundaries from 103rd to 115th Street, many people assume the historic district starts at 111th. Most of Pullman’s white residents live in the southern section, from 111th to 115th. From 103rd to 111th, however, the population is predominantly black.
You see, if you keep writing it and writing it and writing it and people keep reading it and reading it and reading it, there is this sense that this must be true. So, I don’t know what the answer is. I just continue to do what I do. Which sometimes makes people very angry, because I speak truth to power. And that does not always make me popular.
There are a lot of people who wish I weren’t here. Because saying things as simple as “the Pullman National Monument is 103rd to 115th,” people would just as soon [prefer] that I not say that, because they would like to continue with the perception that the monument is 111th to 115th.
But continuing to tell the story, continuing to reiterate the boundaries, will help. But it is like racism: it dies hard. And it is the institutionalized racism that is the most harmful. It’s like Trump. You know, people are so angry at him for what he says: he’s salacious, he’s mean-spirited, but he’s saying things that many people believe. The enemy is within. You cannot blame him because he has put a voice to the ugliness that is in people who, until he showed up on the scene, internalized it and would not say it in public.
Between its small town ambience and its designation as a national monument, Pullman remains a popular tourist destination: recent visitors have included the likes of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. However, these visits revolve around historic attractions like Hotel Florence and Market Square, and are concentrated almost exclusively between 111th and 115th Street. According to Hughes, “Every person who has affluence—or influence—has been to the south end. And not one of them—not one—has been to the north end of the district.”
It’s come a long way, we’ve been here twenty years, twenty-one years, but there’s still so far to go. I was so excited and optimistic, and still am, to a certain degree, about the Pullman National Monument designation. However, I’ve seen enough, experienced enough, to know that it can be a good thing only if politics doesn’t get in and make it messy. And only if the distribution of the resources that are coming down the pipe are accessible to all of Pullman. I see gentrification coming down the track, fast. I do. Because you only need to look at the activity that has taken place.
It’s upsetting to see what’s happening to this community. And I’m going to be okay, but it’s upsetting to see what’s happening. I just think Pullman is one of the last places—because this is happening across the country, where communities of African-American people are, [and] the communities for one reason or another become valuable, and then they’re not the same community anymore. And that is not to say that improvement should not be done, ought not be done, because it can be done. But this community, like many others across the country, is experiencing what is called cultural economic development.
I have been very vocal about the lack of resources coming on this end, but I’m also very aware that when the resources are deposited on one end of the community, that leaves the other half ripe for the picking. With the exception of certain developers, things are left up for grabs. So you have investors that are coming in here, buying up everything that’s not nailed down, you have all the attention that is highlighted or focused on the south end, and one or two developers buying everything on the north end and rehabbing the housing.
But you see, when that happens, it makes the north end ripe for gentrification. There’s just no other way to say it. The activity that people attempt on the north end is met with opposition or totally ignored, so if you’re not allowed to take a step to make improvements, to stabilize the base of the black population in the community, then there’s absolutely no way that you can protect yourself from the gentrification train that’s coming down the tracks.
Peterson, the museum’s current president, is well aware of Pullman’s changing demographics. What he sees in the next generation of north end locals, however, is an opportunity to reach out. Peterson said that a key part of the museum’s strategy is “incorporating media, social media, just all types of media to reach the next generation.”
In recent years, Peterson has led Museum 44, a youth outreach program named after the 44th president, and served as president of the Randolph’s Dream Community Development Corporation, a financial literacy group. The museum has also housed meetings by other community groups—namely, United Pullman, a coalition of different block clubs which Peterson compares to the south end’s Pullman Civic Organization and which Hughes excitedly described as a millennial group.
The museum has also opened its doors and expanded to function as a community center on certain occasions. Peterson has coordinated bike tours of the north end (“It was amazing. It was like people were waiting for something like this,” Hughes told me) and organized gatherings, concerts, and fundraisers on the museum’s outdoor stage. Thanks to this, the museum operates almost exclusively without outside financial support—Hughes says it has only taken two program grants and no operational support grants in the last twenty-one years.
“For all practical purposes, we should not be open,” Hughes joked. “But we are!”
This cultural institution represents the beacon of hope for real integration. We’ve been the stabilizing factor on the north end of this community for twenty-one years. Were we not here, I’m sure it’d be a whole different ballgame. I’m sure.
It is what it is. Pullman has a very complex, complicated history. It has the good, the bad and the ugly. You cannot change history. You cannot. You should not; ought not. But people do. I think one of the fascinating things about Pullman is that it has this complex, unattractive history. But it is real.
Correction (11/25): An earlier version of this piece incorrectly named the community group which David A. Peterson is president of. It is the Randolph’s Dream Community Development Corporation, not the Randolph Street Community Development Corporation. Information has been added elsewhere to reflect that the museum operates largely without grants.