Pullman Museum Opens in Chicago By Cassiette West Williams

Pullman porter assisting a passenger with her luggage. 
Public Domain Photo.

The first-ever Black History museum opened Labor Day weekend in Chicago, IL, and is expected to gross more than $1 million annually. The National A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum opened to crowds of local people and many out-of-town visitors, who enjoyed seeing a celebration of labor on Chicago’s South side. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and Illinois House Speaker Emmanuel “Chris” Welch were among the honored guests for the ribbon-cutting event.

The NAPRPP Museum is located at 817 E. 104th Street. It features exhibits about union organized labor and the Civil Rights movement. There are activities for children, a jazz orchestra, and walking tours in the

Park.  It is officially a part of the National Park System, which is located in the Roseland and West Pullman historic communities.

The area has experienced a rebirth, with resources  ($35 million in exhibits, gift store, renovations on the grounds and inside) and financial partners coming forth, but the crime in this specific area of Chicago continues. There is a brand new Culver’s restaurant in the area and a football stadium in the neighborhood.

Finally, The Black men, who were hired and trained to treat white train customers as first-class passengers, are being recognized and honored for their almost 100 years of working in the public with rail travel.

George Pullman founded the Pullman Company in 1867 and exclusively catered to upper-class white men. Black men were hired to work on the train, and more than 20,000 Black males were employed by the

Pullman Company. They were often treated with no respect and in a humiliating manner by the white patrons. They were not called by their name but referred to as “George” or “boy” every day, all day and 

continued to work as first-class stewards on the train. Sometimes they were even called racial slurs by the customers, but they kept on working, acting as if they had never heard the customer’s rude remarks. The Pullman porters worked throughout the United States and Canada during the Jim Crow era (1865 – 1970).

The Pullman porters also served food to the white men, did their laundry by ironing shirts and articles of clothing, carrying their luggage, and whatever else that the men requested. The Pullman porters

kept the sleeping cabins clean. They brushed down the seats and kept them supple and plush. They provided white-glove, top-of-the-line service to all whites clients on the train without batting an eye at

how they were being mistreated. Often, these men remained as porters for 40 or 50 years to support their families. It was a stable position for Black men, and they were respected by people in their own community. If the porter worked 400 hours, they would receive their full salary. If they failed to do so, their check would be short, despite not having the ability to sleep on the train for less than six hours. They were required to work no less than 20-hour shifts, which is now illegal.

The Pullman porters stopped working for the original company in the late 1960s when Amtrak took over many of their rails. Some of the seasoned workers began a new career with Amtrak and were hired on as 

“Red Caps,” who assisted passengers with special needs, families with babies and/or toddlers, senior citizens, and business people, who are seated in first class.

Due to the Pullman porters stellar reputation and work ethic, some of these men served as mentors and trainers for the young people whom Amtrak hired. Many of the new employees had no rail experience and were not aware of the high expectations that the customers were accustomed to from the porters. Some of the Pullman porters became homeowners and purchased other property due to their salary from working on the trains, which was much higher than working in the fields as a sharecropper.

By the turn of the century, more than 90 percent of travel within the United States was done by train. However, transportation expanded in the 1960s with the Ford Motor Plant and cities like Detroit, MI 

produced cars. Buses were used, and corporate America used airplanes to conduct business. The official Pullman company stopped operating in 1968. The Pullman porters were viewed as wise men due to their exposure from traveling the country. They were able to teach families how to move within the confines of the Jim Crow states, as Blacks migrated  from the South to the Midwest, West, and 

East coast. 

The men were dressed immaculately in their uniforms, which is an image that was passed down to the current Amtrak employees. They wore starched shirts, ties, a dark cap, a matching two-piece suit, and a belt. The men kept their patent leather shoes shined and cleaned. The Pullman porters were dressed well and took pride in their appearance. Some of the men used their “status” with the organization to hold leadership positions within the Black community.

Today, there are families who gather at the museum and share the history of the Pullman porters’ journey with others, so it is not lost. During the Museum opening, the ancestors of the Pullman porters gathered in the gift store and various places to educate guests and share their memories of the past. The gift shop offers toys, like little Pullman trains and stickers for the children.

Information was used from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.