George Pullman: The Unintentional Social Reformer

By Adam Carter

George Pullman, so it seemed, started out as a well-intentioned man, helping raise Chicago’s buildings out of the literal muck. He was an entrepreneur who began his career jacking buildings, trees, fire hydrants out of the filth that was the Chicago streets of the mid-1800s. Literally using giant screws that, on his whistle, 600 men would rotate a quarter of a turn every few minutes, he elevated even the largest of buildings an average of ten feet without disturbing any of the business inside. His first in Chicago (he’d worked in New York previously) was the giant Chicago Matteson House and then he went on to raise almost the entire city.
 

At that point, Pullman was considered a hero, one of the saviors of Chicago. The town had been filthy, both before and after the fire, and he helped lift it to a new level. But by the end of his life, opinions would change.

An accidental decency he performed was almost single-handedly bringing the black race into the middle-class. From what I read, he didn’t set out to perform any civil services such as this; it was inadvertent . He was truly industrial with his invention of the Pullman Car, a luxury railroad car used to transport wealthy folk around the country – and, I guess, also with his use of the “Negro” as his porter. He took a normal passenger car – an uncomfortable, insomnia-inducing, bumper of a ride – and transformed it into a double-decker bed and eventually into a compartment with as many amenities as a furnished hotel room. His first car, appropriately named The Pioneer, was a mere blueprint for what was to come. The Pioneer featured Brussels carpeting, marble washbasins, ceiling murals and French plate mirrors. Compare that to the paper-thin cushions used as seats just years prior. Soon restaurants were available, and accordion-like material connected the cars, keeping wind noise and resistance to a minimum.

And then he added the Pullman Porter.

In the book, Rising From the Rails, by Larry Tye, “Such compromised postures called for a porter whom passengers could regard as part of the furnishings rather than a mortal with likes, dislikes, and a memory. It had to be someone they knew they would never encounter outside the closed capsule of the sleeping car, someone who inhabited a different reality. It must be a Negro.”

Most of the material I came across while studying George Pullman spoke little about this part of his life. They all liked to mention how he transported Abe Lincoln’s corpse back to Illinois in 1865, how he dropped out of school at age 14 because of his natural knack for business, and they spoke excessively about the end of his career when he created Pullman, IL, an actual town for his employees just south of Chicago.

Tye’s book was one of the few sources that mentioned Pullman’s “business sense” in hiring blacks as porters. Apparently, to keep the passengers from confusing them with one of their own, Pullman had all his porters referred to as George, as in George Pullman. Their value lay in their inherent acceptance of “servility more than humanity”. Many passengers simply called them “porter”. Occasionally, and rudely, “boy”. But “George” seemed to be the predominate term. It went so far that an actual organization had been created: SPCSCPG, the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George, a group with such renowned members as King George V and George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

But despite the humiliation (which Pullman figured Negros were accustomed to) and his intentions of simply making money, Pullman did bring African-Americans closer to a real place in society. Through their work as Pullman Porters, they did, for the first time, rise to the middle-class.

Eventually, as previously mentioned, Pullman’s head got so big that he created his own town of Pullman, IL* in 1880, an aesthetically pleasing plant where his employees could conceivably work, eat, go to church and raise families. In actuality, what they mostly did was work and starve. Rent at the church was so high that clergy could rarely afford to hold a service. Alcohol was outlawed in the town. And the average rent was $9 a fortnight. With their paychecks being around $9.07, they were left with virtually nothing to spend on food. Pullman had guaranteed his investors a 6% return on the town, and so he refused to lower the rent.

Sick of being taken advantage of, the workers, led by Eugene Victor Debs of the American Railway Union, went on strike on May 12, 1894. Still, Pullman wouldn’t negotiate. He was George Pullman, THE George Pullman. His workers were merely that – subordinates. Federal soldiers were sent to keep the angry strikers in order, but to little avail. The strike culminated in violence. Troops actually began to shoot the strikers, killing, by the end of July, a total of 34 people. Amazingly, the courts agreed with the railway owners, sending Debs to jail for contempt.

When The George Pullman finally died on October 19, 1897, his family, worried about the hatred that had grown for him, had him securely buried. His grave in Graceland Cemetery was eight feet deep, reinforced with steel and concrete and covered with asphalt.

If you couldn’t tell, my opinion of Mr. Pullman is not so great, possibly – probably – influenced by the views of other writers and biographers. There’s no doubt, though, that he did some things that were good. If you have an opinion about George Pullman, positive, negative, somewhere in the middle, we’d be happy to hear about it. Let Theresa know at tlc@thelocaltourist.com.

*There’s an awesome pictorial of Pullman, IL in the book Chicago in Maps: 1612-2002, it’s definitely worth checking out.


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