Who Knew There is a Pullman Porter Museum?

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum could be one of Chicago’s most under-appreciated institutions. Frankly, I had no idea it even existed until just recently. While looking into a visit to the Pullman National Monument, I stumbled across the Pullman Porter Museum’s website. The museum, founded in 1995, memorializes the famous Pullman porters. and their key role in the Black labor movement. Since the museum’s very existence took me by surprise, I figured it was worth looking into the both the porters and the museum itself.

Working as a Pullman Porter

Puillman Porter museum

First, let’s get into some background on the Pullman Palace Car Company, a railcar manufacturer. Beginning in the 1860’s, Pullman specialized in construction high-end passenger cars for the railways that were starting to spread like wildfire across the American landscape. Pullman decorated its passenger and sleeper cars in a luxurious style that made passengers feel like members of the Gilded Age’s elite, whether they were or not.

Pullman Porters were the uniformed men who serviced the passengers in the railcars. As Pullman started the company in the years immediately following the Civil War, he made a point of hiring former slaves as porters. These railcar assistants helped passengers in every imaginable way and at all hours. To name just some of their duties, porters helped passengers board the trains, handled their luggage, set up the sleeping cars, shined shoes, and served meals. Their services contributed to the image of luxury associated with Pullman.

Hiring former slaves to work as servants was not exactly politically progressive. That era was still rife with virulent and outspoken racism. Porters dealt with a particular common example of this–white passengers called all Pullman porters “George.” Slaves had traditionally been named after their masters and the founder of the Pullman Company was named George. We see it today as a form of verbalized racial control for Whites, no matter their class, to call one of these porters “George.” Eventually, a joking group named the “Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters ‘George'” was formed. Yet even this group had an ugly side. Their joking protest was for white men named George who did not like the association with Black workers.

The Pullman Porter Union and the Black Middle Class

A. Phillip Randolph Pullman porter civil rights black labor movement
A. Philip Randolph was a leader of both the Black labor and Civil Rights movements.

By the 1920’s, the labor force of many industries across the United States were unionizing. Unfortunately, the era’s blatant racism plagued the labor movement as well. The Order of Sleeping Car Conductors only organized white male workers. In response, a civil rights and labor leader named A. Phillip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It was the first labor union for African-Americans.

Pullman porters were held in esteem in the African-American community for their professionalism. Even without a union, their visibility and pay had made them a key part of the emerging Black middle class. Because of that position, many porters and members of the community opposed the unionization drive. They feared the potential repercussions of overreaching. Honestly, considering the constant legal and physical harassment that African-Americans faced in this era, I understand the concerns. It’s extraordinarily tough to stick your neck out when you’re part of a persecuted minority.

Working for Workers’ Rights

The new union went to work combatting the poor working conditions and racism that Pullman porters endured. The most immediate area of concern was poor pay for the average Pullman porter. Despite working up to 20 hours a day and doing a huge variety of tasks, porters got most of their income from tips. These tips were often enough for porters to support themselves and their families, but it was hardly a guaranteed income. Black porters were ineligible for promotion to positions like conductor. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters fought the Pullman company, other unions, and government regulations before winning an agreement for its members in 1935.

A. Philip Randolph, the union’s leader and the museum’s namesake, was instrumental in both the labor and civil rights movements. Under his leadership, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters successfully pushed for desegregation of the defense industries and military. It was also associated with the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott. Randolph was even the planner and organizer of the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. He spoke both before and after Martin Luther King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.

Visit the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum

While I haven’t had the chance to but tickets and visit the museum yet, its exhibits and activities make it seem like a key part of the new Pullman National Monument. The main exhibits at the museum focus on the history of A. Philip Randolph and the black labor rights movements. You’ll also find exhibits that tell stories from the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement.

The museum has also launched a historic registry for Pullman porters and other African-American railroad employees. The registry is collecting information about former porters and dining car waiters. With thousands of oral histories collected, the museum hopes to use the registry as a tool for enshrining and promoting the vast legacy of the Pullman porters on African-American history.

So in addition to touring the incredible historic architecture of the Pullman District, you can make sure to pop into the museum. It doesn’t have the visibility of heavyweights like the Field Museum or Art Institute, but its an important element of Chicago’s cultural institutions.

– Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


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Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

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I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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