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Pullman and the Railroad Rebellion | Chicago Stories

The Race to Reverse the River

Railroad titan George Pullman’s name was once synonymous with luxury. His sleeping cars changed how some Americans rode the rails. But when his success didn’t trickle down to the people who built, operated, and staffed his cars, a rebellion ensued. While the first major strike ultimately failed, a group of Black workers later found success through organizing, paving the way for a Black middle class and a civil rights movement that forever changed the course of American history.

Women board a Pullman train with the assistance of a conductor (left) and a porter (right), circa 1915.

Workers at the Pullman Company Gave Rise to Powerful Unions. Their Actions Are Still Felt Today.

Women board a Pullman train with the assistance of a conductor (left) and a porter (right), circa 1915. Image: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-026271

George Pullman may have built a picturesque town outside Chicago for the workers who built his luxury sleeping train cars, but his paternalistic control over the lives of his employees helped spark one of the biggest and most contentious labor actions in American history. His company also relied on Black workers – most often porters and maids. Although those jobs helped establish a Black middle class, the workers endured racism and discrimination on the job. They, too, organized, and in doing so paved the way for the civil rights movement.

At the end of 2022, President Joe Biden signed a bill that imposed a settlement upon railway companies and workers that had been brokered by his administration and then rejected by several of the rail unions for lacking enough paid leave. Under the 1926 Railway Labor Act, the federal government can offer recommendations in contract negotiations between rail companies and unions, as well as bind them to a labor agreement. The Biden Administration did both of those things in order to avoid a strike that ​​Biden said would have caused “an economic catastrophe.”

For a sense of the possible effects of a railroad strike on the country, one can look back almost 130 years to … Read more

Tour A Private Pullman Rail Car from 1889

See what it would have been like to ride in luxury in 1889 with a tour of a private Pullman rail car.

Maid reading book to two children on train

The Often-Overlooked Story of the Pullman Company Maids

The Black women who worked as maids for the Pullman Company in the early 20th century were often tasked with caring for passengers’ children. Image: Minnesota State Historical Society / Newberry Library

By 1925, the Pullman Company employed 12,000 porters. In its first several decades, the company hired only Black men for the position, which served as a kind of on-site concierge for railroad passengers. But Black women were also working for the Pullman Company as maids. Though smaller in number, the maids, as well as their stories and their contributions to Pullman unionization efforts, have often been overlooked.

“I think Black working women have been overshadowed in much of our history of America. And I think that the maids are also part of that obfuscation,” Melinda Chateauvert, a scholar with Front Porch Research Strategy who has written about the topic, told Chicago Stories.

Pullman hired mostly Black women as maids, though some Chinese American women worked on the railcars, too. According to Chateauvert, maids had to be at least 25 years old. There were far fewer maids than porters. While an entire team of porters worked a train, there was typically only one maid.

There was a distinct workplace hierarchy on Pullman trains… Read more

Workers in 1891 leaving through the main gate of the Pullman factory

Loyalty or Control? Why George Pullman Built a Company Town Where “Labor Helped Capitalism”

Workers in 1891 leaving through the main gate of the Pullman factory Image: Newberry Library

By 1880, business was booming for George Pullman. Production of his famous sleeper cars was ramping up, and the draftsmen, carpenters, painters, and other laborers who helped him build that empire were hard at work.

At a time when there were few workplace protections for people working even the most dangerous jobs, Pullman wanted a way to instill a sense of loyalty in his factory employees, many of whom were European immigrants.

“Maybe we don’t want to kill them in the workplace because we want them to come back. Maybe we don’t want them living in squalor where they could suffer disease because we want them to come back,” Bob Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, told Chicago Stories.

So he built an eponymous town where he would provide everything his workers needed, at least on the surface… Read more


Pullman porter

How Pullman Porters Laid Groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement

While serving as a porter on a Pullman Palace car was one of the better jobs available to African American men, it still had its indignities. Frustrated that they did not share in the gains of their white colleagues, the porters formed the first successful black union in the country.

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Workers leave the Pullman Palace Car Works, 1893

The 125th Anniversary of One of America's Biggest Strikes

Pullman was supposed to be an idyllic worker's town. But the restrictions and deprivations imposed by the wealthy George Pullman on his workers eventually led to one of the biggest labor actions in American history: the Pullman strike, which began 125 years ago.

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Mural on tunnel wall

‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Pullman and West Pullman

Chicago’s Pullman and West Pullman areas were once industrial communities where workers lived and worked. The neighborhoods on the Far South Side have since experienced an economic downfall, but over the years people have pushed for growth to improve the quality of life.

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Historic photo of Pullman, Illinois

10 Towns That Changed America: Pullman, Illinois

In the 1870s, widespread railway strikes, inspired by workers' wage cuts, brought commerce across the U.S. to a standstill. This led to violent conflicts between police and workers, requiring military intervention to restore order in several cities.

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Lead support for Chicago Stories is provided by The Negaunee Foundation.

Major support is provided by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, TAWANI Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, and the Donna Van Eekeren Foundation.

Funding for Chicago Stories: Pullman and the Railroad Rebellion is provided by ComEd, Philip and Rene Alphonse, and Antonio and Kimberly Monk.