A ceremony at the Pullman National Monument on Monday marked another step in making a sprawling factory site on Chicago’s South Side a tourist attraction.
Federal, state and local officials gathered to break ground on a park around a clock tower near the site where Pullman passenger railroad cars were built. President Barack Obama designated the factory and surrounding area a national monument five years ago, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and other federal lawmakers have pending legislation that would make the area a national park.
The factory and the neighborhood around it was built by industrialist George M. Pullman in the 19th century for people who worked at his state-of-the-art factory. The building of the town was a move of goodwill he thought would help prevent labor strikes.
Pullman’s policies backfired, igniting a nationwide labor war that helped plant the seeds of the modern labor movement. In the wake of a bloody strike against Pullman, labor unions reorganized, company towns in industrial areas declined and negotiators began using arbitration to settle disputes.
The harsh working conditions aboard Pullman’s sleeping cars helped spur the birth of the African American labor movement. Disgruntled porters, who served sleeping car passengers, organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union in the 1920s.
At Monday’s groundbreaking, Durbin said the movement the porters started is still relevant.
“The question across America is: [Is] that railroad track in the United States big enough for economic justice and racial justice? Those were the questions then, [and] they are the same questions today,” he said.
More than $34 million in public and private funds was raised for the renovation of the clock tower building, once nearly destroyed by arson. The building, built in the 1880s, will serve as the visitors’ center for the national monument.