Author: Mingyang Sun
Program of Study: SSD MAPSS

Heading south along the S Cottage Grove Ave from the University of Chicago by car, within 20 minutes, we will arrive at Pullman, a neighborhood located on Chicago’s south side. The main purpose of our short trip to the Pullman neighborhood is to visit Pullman National Monument, also known as the Pullman Historic District. In 2015, this district was designated as a U.S. National Monument, turning it into Chicago’s first and only unit of the National Park Service. Through the Google Street View services, I managed to take a virtual walk around this district.

Figure 1: Pullman National Monument Mural painted on the north wall of Pullman National Monument Visitor Center, a 1996 mural interpretation of the former Pullman Arcade Building by students from the American Academy of Art. (Source: Google Images by Brian Mahoney)

Dating back to the late 1870s, George M. Pullman, an American engineer, industrialist, and also the owner of the Pullman Company, set out to found the Pullman Community, which was regarded as the first model planned industrial community in the United States. As I dived deep into this history, what I found interesting was the reason why he built this utopian community — to solve two different problems: where to build a new plant for his Pullman Palace Cars and how to attract and retain talented workers for his company. He managed to achieve the two objects at a time, bringing him both fame and fortune.

This community was a success within the first 15 years of its existence. It was even named “The World’s Most Perfect Town”, yet this was never a hollow reputation. For one thing, Pullman utopia was worthy of its name in self-sustaining and provided the workers and their families with brick rowhouses, schools, parks, theaters, and other infrastructures that were not usually seen in other communities at that time. For another, Pullman attracted many talented workers: the population of this small town exceeded 8,000, the majority of whom were young and skilled employees. Of course, George himself won great fortune with the enormous success in his car industry. In 1881, to showcase the Pullman town to visitors from nationwide, George spent approximately $130,000 on Hotel Florence, named after his oldest daughter. Even now, I can tell and imagine how prosperous and vibrant the Pullman community once was from the splendid and marvelous Hotel Florence.

Figure 2: Ca. 1885, view of Lake Vista with the Administration Building to the left, the Hotel Florence in the rear center, and the Arcade Building to the right. (Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)
Figure 3: The Hotel Florence in winter, by Jack Boucher

As I finished my visit to the Historic Pullman Foundation and headed for the Pullman Park, the incredible mural on the back wall of Pullman National Monument Visitor Information Center glued my eyes (Refer to Figure 1). This mural showcased the hustle and bustle of the Pullman Community in its early stage. However, good times did not last long. Owing to the Panic of 1893, a serious economic depression that lasted for four years, orders at the Pullman Company declined greatly. Struggling to maintain profitability during this recession, George M. Pullman lowered his workers’ wages but the rents remained unchanged and deducted directly from their paychecks. Even though many plead for decreased rents with the help of the American Railway Union (ARU), to maintain a profitable enterprise, George refused.

From my perspective, the primary goal of capitalists is always profit and has never changed. George Pullman’s founding of the Pullman community was not out of charity or a whim but just coincided with his original goal — making more money. Ironically, with the name of utopia, the intrinsic incentives of profitability were disguised. With a deeper understanding of the essence of capitalists, it would be no wonder that George declined to all the pleas from his poor employees.

On May 11, 1894, desperate Pullman workers went on a strike in response to wage reductions. To support the strike, the ARU launched a nationwide boycott on Pullman cars, disrupting rail traffic across different states. Obviously, this violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, therefore, the federal government intervened to settle the chaos. Thousands of U.S. Army and Marshal troops took action to stop this turbulence. As a result, dozens from the strikers and the military were dead or injured. It was estimated that property damage surpassed 80 million dollars. As the aftermath of the Pullman Strike, the Pullman Palace Car Company was forced to sell off all the residential properties. Given the trade union growth, also in memory of the strike movements across the nation, Labor Day was set as a federal holiday on the first Monday in September.




Sitting on the chairs and enjoying my cappuccino inside the Pullman Café, I was quite attracted and moved by the fearless and pioneering workers and strikers. Without those laborious and hard-working employees in history, the Pullman Town could never have existed. Similarly, the United States could never have been so dynamic and energetic if no workers tried to fight for the unfairness they have been treated by the capitalists. As I attempted to explore the labor movements, fortunately, within the Pullman neighborhood is the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum.

Figure 4: National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum (Source: Black PR Wire)


Then, going north from the visitor center of Pullman National Monument, we will arrive at the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. Named for the prominent leader A. Philip Randolph, this history museum recognizes and explores extensively African American labor history.

In 1925, Asa Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), which turned out to be the first predominantly African-American labor union. It was the first time for employees of the Pullman Company to form a labor organization so seriously, among whom most were African-Americans. Though the demand for new railroads increased rapidly and more job opportunities followed at the beginning of the 20th century, porters were underpaid and suffered harsh working environments. To resolve this issue, Randolph decided to go into action. Starting from 1928 when he planned the first strike with the BSCP, Randolph led years of failed labor movements. It was not until 1937 that a landmark agreement was reached between the Pullman Company and the Brotherhood.

“A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

As put by A. Philip Randolph, this great success achieved by the labor union was also a milestone in African American Civil Rights in hindsight.

Back from reflections on impressive historical events, I walked out of the great museum. Looking around on the E 104th Street, my eyes are filled with faded red brick buildings, yellowed leaves, weeds,  and tangled wires. All these views appear to suggest the glorious and historical past of this neighborhood. Indeed, Pullman is a magic time capsule transporting us back to the end of the 19th century. Interested in the first industrial community as well as the following heroic labor movements in the United States? Pullman is definitely a live national monument worth visiting and exploring.




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