The Pullman National Monument and Public Memory

By Susan Hirsch

Pullman strikers outside Arcade Building

In 2015, President Barack Obama designated Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood, a former model manufacturing town, as the Pullman National Monument. Labor leaders, historians, community members and socialists had long advocated this step. The model town was the site of one of the most pivotal strikes in American history, the experience that made Eugene Debs (Nov. 5, 1855-Oct. 20, 1926) a socialist. As the monument’s exhibits and programming are developed, however, will visitors find this history featured prominently?

There are very few places in the United States where positive representations of the labor movement or leftist radicals exist and contribute to public memory of the role of unions or left political movements in American history. Public spaces shape popular memory, and they are created by those with power. Capitalists, not labor unions or socialists, usually have that power, just as white supremacists did when they installed monuments to the Confederacy in cities and towns across the country. Today antiracists are organizing to purge those monuments. Their successes are the result of a decades-long antiracist movement. The decline of unions since the 1970s weakens any movement to bring into public memory the history of workers’ resistance, union activism and the appeal of socialism. Pullman offers an opportunity to memorialize that history, but competing memories and narratives complicate that project.   

The model town of Pullman was created in 1880 by George Pullman, whose Pullman Palace Car Company provided sleeping car service on American railroads. He expected that good housing and community facilities around the new manufacturing plant, the Car Works, would guarantee labor peace as he instituted mass production methods. Craftsmen, however, objected to a regime that decreased their pay, devalued their skills and increased the pace of their labor. They formed craft unions and struck numerous times through the 1880s and early 1890s. Although the town did not create the docile workers he wanted, Pullman was not unhappy. He was a skilled publicist, advertising the model town as a tourist attraction and himself as an enlightened employer. Pullman and his town became nationally known and widely praised, even if his workers disagreed.

When a depression began in 1893, Pullman cut wages at the Car Works drastically, but left dividends, managerial salaries and rents in Pullman housing unchanged. Workers responded by joining the new American Railway Union. Headed by Eugene Debs, the ARU was one of the first “industrial” (as opposed to “craft”) unions, welcoming workers in every craft and job in the railroad industry. In May 1894, Pullman refused to bargain with union leaders, and workers struck. Many Chicagoans supported the strikers, because they saw Pullman as unfair and intransigent when the ARU agreed to mediation but he did not.

A month after the strike began, Pullman workers asked fellow ARU members for support, and the union began a boycott of trains across the nation. Train traffic west of Chicago was almost completely shut down, and the railroad companies procured a federal injunction against the boycott. Debs was jailed for refusing to counsel workers to give up. As the strike went on and businesses ground to a halt from lack of transportation, other companies, especially Chicago’s meatpackers, urged President Grover Cleveland to intervene. When Cleveland sent troops to move the trains, violence occurred in many rail centers. The boycott and strike were broken, and the ARU destroyed. The ability of the federal government to break any union or strike and the power of capitalists over mainstream politicians was clear.

Debs delivering a speech in Chicago in 1912

As Debs sat in jail for six months, he concluded that this country needed socialism. When workers did not hold political power, their needs could be ignored and even industry-wide unions could be defeated. Debs led the new Socialist Party after 1900, and both he and socialism were popular in the Pullman area, which twice elected socialists to the Chicago city council.

The story of the strike and Debs’ role in it has been ignored in Pullman since the Car Works closed in the late 1950s. But the origin of the new national monument is to be found in that era of deindustrialization. Seeking to protect their homes from possible demolition in the 1960s, residents of south Pullman, which had the town’s best housing, obtained a national historic landmark designation from the National Park Service for south Pullman. The Historic Pullman Foundation, a community organization, built a visitors’ center; it produces programming that focuses on urban planning and the town’s architectural value. This narrative has predominated in public memory about the town; it reinforces an impression of Pullman as an enlightened capitalist.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency took another step toward the current monument when it bought the Car Works to house a museum to highlight a different narrative–the story of the railroad industry and Pullman’s role in it. Many American industrial monuments or museums focus on the nature of work and major companies without addressing workers’ resistance to exploitation. Questioning capitalism or the authority of businessmen in public life is seen as “partisan.” The museum never materialized for lack of funding, but it might well have reinforced a positive view of Pullman, providing exhibits on the many crafts needed in car building but not on unionization or strikes.

The current Pullman monument faces a difficult task since it intends to incorporate the multiple stories that the site can tell. In 1995, the creation of the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in north Pullman contributed yet another narrative, one focusing on the company’s and the town’s history of racial discrimination in employment and housing. Before World War I, the Car Works hired only white people, while all Pullman porters and maids were black. Manufacturing workers earned much more than porters or maids, most of whom lived far from the model town. Management created racial segregation, but so too did white workers. Against Debs’ wishes, white ARU members refused to allow black railroad workers to join the union. In the 1920s, after black workers were first hired in the Car Works, white residents of Pullman put racial covenants on the entire neighborhood to prevent African Americans from buying homes there. By the 1990s, however, north Pullman had become part of Chicago’s expanding black ghetto. The Pullman Porter museum brings the story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters into the monument.

To fulfill its potential, the Pullman National Monument must include Debs and the 1894 Strike prominently. It will also need, however, to tie these various strands together around larger themes if visitors are to understand them. The power of the federal government to support or crush labor militancy is certainly one of those themes. The success of the porters’ union depended on the support of the federal government during the 1930s New Deal, while the ARU, faced with a Democratic president in thrall to big business, had a very different fate. The monument also needs to recognize the role of radicals in these labor movements. After all, A. Philip Randolph was, like Debs, a socialist.

Local residents are now organizing to create a memorial to Debs within the Pullman monument, but it is unlikely that this effort or even an exhibit on the 1894 strike will go unopposed by those who resist any questioning of capitalist hegemony. The Woodstock, Illinois, City Council recently voted to memorialize Debs’ incarceration in the McHenry County Jail with a plaque that makes clear what Debs did and what he thought. “Friends of the Courthouse” objected, fearing the plaque might alienate potential visitors and hamper fund raising for needed renovations. In this case, those arguments were unsuccessful, and the plaque will be unveiled on October 21st. We will need activism to make sure that the story of Debs and the 1894 strike gets told as clearly and prominently at the Pullman monument.          

Chicago DSA member Susan Hirsch retired from teaching labor history at Loyola University Chicago. She is the author of After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman (2003).

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