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Labor History Makes Headway in NPS

Pullman strikers in Chicago. The Illinois National Guard is visible protecting the building.
Pullman strikers in Chicago. The Illinois National Guard is visible protecting the building.

Roughly a week ago, President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Pullman, a former company town in Illinois, as a National Monument. The effort was a long time in the making, with many organizations and partners involved in the designation campaign.

Pullman first came to prominence in the 1880’s when George M. Pullman decided to build a model town to house workers employed at his rail car factories. While the accommodations and landscaping of the new community were fairly comfortable, the strict controls exercised by Pullman over the lives and political activities of his employees proved far less agreeable. Residents chafed at his strict behavioral standards and inflexible rents, which became especially onerous during the Panic of 1893, an economic depression like none the nation had ever seen (or would again until the stock market crash of 1929).

As a result of the crisis, Pullman workers saw their incomes drop, but not their rents, precipitating a strike in 1894 that would ultimately last for 2 months. The American Railway Union (only a year or so old at the time), then headed by Eugene V. Debs, sought arbitration, and when that failed, authorized union members to cease work on any trains that carried Pullman Palace cars. The strike – now national in scope and affecting some 250,000 workers – ground much of the country’s rail transport to a halt, with little traffic moving in and out of Chicago, the system’s largest hub. Ultimately, it took intervention on the part of the federal government, including both an injunction and the use of soldiers (both unprecedented at the time), to bring the action to a violent halt. Though the workers lost the strike, they did succeed in gaining widespread sympathy among the public. This support, however, did not translate into improved pay or working conditions. The 1894 events in Pullman demonstrated not only what solidarity among workers could achieve, but also the lengths to which some within the government and business establishment would go to prevent collective action among labor.

In later decades, the Pullman Company would continue to play an important role in labor and African American history. In 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an African American union founded by civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, won a contract for Pullman porters – an exclusively African American workforce. Coming amidst the Great Depression, the agreement was truly groundbreaking, marking the first major contract between a union led by Black workers and a large corporation. Indeed, at the time, Pullman was the largest single employer of African Americans in the United States, though the town of Pullman itself remained racially segregated and largely off-limits to Black residents. Significantly, Randolph also played a key role in pressuring President Roosevelt – via his (Randolph’s) calls for a 1941 March on Washington – to issue Executive Order 8802 (1941), which prohibited discrimination in defense industries and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

Reading such stories, it is hard to believe that it took until 2015 for Pullman to become a part of the National Park system. Even more troubling, Pullman remains one of only a handful of sites that focus on telling stories of industrial work, especially in the context of union organizing, collective bargaining and civil rights movements.* It is important to note that unions, while advocating and organizing for economic change, often practiced racial, ethnic and gender-based discrimination, an important part of the labor story and one that adds much needed complexity to the potential interpretation at a site like Pullman.

Given the undeniable and ongoing impact of industrialization and later de-industrialization on the American landscape, it is well past time for places connected to key industries such as coal, steel, automobiles, aerospace, retail or petroleum to gain the attention (and yes, the debate and national dialogue) that comes with NPS designation. At a moment when income and wealth inequality is growing, reflecting on the role of unions in shaping late 19th and 20th century life seems all the more pressing.

To learn more about some of the labor history sites considered for both National Historic Landmark designation and unit designation, see the 2003 National Labor Theme Study (draft).

* Other sites (please let me know if I have missed any) that interpret these stories include: Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park (RI), Lowell National Historical Park (MA), Keweenaw National Historical Park ( MI), Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park (NJ), César E. Chávez National Monument (CA) and Rosie the Riveter/ World War II Home Front National Historical Park (CA). The Kate Mullany National Historic Site, an affiliated area, also has a strong labor focus.

A large number of National Heritage Areas also interpret and protect sites associated with late 19th and 20th century labor and industrial history including: Augusta Canal National Heritage Area; Baltimore National Heritage Area, Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor; Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Essex National Heritage Area; Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area; Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor; John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor; Lackawanna Heritage Valley National and State Heritage Area; MotorCities National Heritage Area; National Coal Heritage Area; Ohio & Erie National Heritage Canal Way; Oil Region National Heritage Area; Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area; Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area; and Wheeling National Heritage Area.

2 Responses

  1. This point about Pullman, and the note of how “troubling” it and the associated issues are, bears continual analysis. This Labor History theme study draft, because it took so so long to be issued, obscures just how troubling the disconnect is. When the work was for all practical purposes done and over, and it was clear some of America’s most significant or notorious labor sites either would not be listed as recommended or if listed, would not be considered suitable for NPS designation. Some of this changed before this 2005 Draft, as places like the Bost Building (after tremendous fighting both outside and inside the NPS happened over whether it, and much more significantly, the riverfront site at Homestead itself, would be considered. And, of the sites considered eligible for NHL, ONLY the Kate Mullany site was considered suitable for National Park System designation.

    But, lo ! now we see with Presidential and Congressional participation that not only has Pullman been made a Unit of the NPS, but so has Hopedale and Whitinsville (all in the Blackstone park and heritage corridor). At the time the scholars did the survey for this theme study, as they (including H. Gutman) emerged from the bus at Hopedale and Whitinsville, they were heard to say “lets make this a site right now !” so impressed were they. Similar equivocation happened over Homestead, THE place that symbolizes the change from workers as craftspeople to presumably interchangeable labor. The objection was the bank of the river had been hardened. In being challenged on what could be the significance because the riverbank had been hardened since the Lockout, the NE Regional planner, Deirdre Gibson in a tone of tremendous authority spoke back to Power: “It HAS the authenticity of PLACE !”

    At another meeting I witnessed, with NPS Cultural Res chief Kate Stevenson, GPRA planner Heather Huyck, NCR Dep. Director Sandy Walter and Dep Director Deny Galvin, a dispute broke out that gets to how these disconnects really do occur, and perhaps points to future solutions. The dispute was the insistence to use NHL criteria to determine what National Heritage Corridors or heritage areas to recommend. Galvin strongly objected to the NHL criteria, and brilliantly urged that the heritage areas must be identified as “nationally DISTINCTIVE PLACES.” And, that the NHL standards being applied to Landmarks and Parks resulted in selecting “freaks” — one-of-a-kind sites sometimes representing extremes (like the geyser that erupts every 90 minutes) rather than the MOST characteristic sites of greatest current and future meaning to America.

    Yet the “distinctive place” standard is focused on a SENSE OF PLACE is it not? A place when you are there that feels and looks special. “Nationally Significant” place can be about an EVENT (like a battle) that may or not have a sense of the mix of culture and geography, and that may or may not convey a power of place or historical meaning today.

    The Homestead waterfront, even with the concrete, conveys a power of place today. Does the Bost building?

    To show how this disconnect can happen in other theme areas, take houses of famous people. NPS currently will support the home of a previous President of the US without much argument at all. It is considered a slam dunk. But do all homes really represent the character of that President or the meaning of the President’s life or presidency? Yes, in the case of Harry Truman, where you feel looking at his books and his hat and coat that Harry just walked out. But the JFK site in Brookline? When does a site convey Meaning?

    Anyway, the criteria do create disconnects. And, there may be agendas at work among some of the professionals who manage the studies and their recommendations: some think additional designations undermine the significance of previous designations; some think (with next to no evidence, just ‘common sense’ however unexamined) that any money that goes to one site will be taken away from an existing site’s manager to manage the new one. Regarding the Kate Mullany site, during a coffee break I actually heard a planner complain about the run-down neighborhood Mullany’s house was in, and said: ‘do you really think a national park should be in a neighborhood like that?’ This despite all our evidence that national recognition of significant historic sites CAN be used to bring new energy and rehab money to neglected communities. But experience notwithstanding, the recommendation was not for a Unit, but an ‘affiliated’ area.

    And, in the meantime, the word ‘distinctive’ seems to have been lost for heritage areas, sliding on the ‘significant’ continuum back in lieu of ‘distinctive’ to ‘important.’ A ‘placeless’ word if there ever was one.

    Some have actually said ‘this is what happens when you let planners do the work of landscape architects’ – traditionally the park-makers in the NPS. And, ‘we don’t do PLANNING in America; we do PERMITTING.’ But we all know planners with elevated perspectives who do more than check the criterion box.

    For all the complaints about politics, thank goodness we have the Congress and the President going beyond the studies to designate as Units places like Pullman and Hopedale that were disregarded for Unit consideration. Political leaders can look past the angels-on-pinheads argumentation to the undeniable recognition that Pullman was a turning point in US history with an overwhelming sense of place, and for more than how it affected Eugene Debs or Robert Lincoln, but for all of us.

  2. Jim, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I have to wonder how much ideology also comes into play here. Are decision-makers in NPS ready to interpret and promote sites whose histories question the U.S. economic system – i.e. market capitalism? Of course, many of the workers involved with labor actions were not in favor of changing the system, they simply and understandably desired respect for their labor and also a more equitable distribution of the profits. But – some of the workers and organizers DID question capitalism, incl. Eugene Debs & this part of the story is what is missing. The years between roughly 1877 – 1941 were (in regards to the ‘labor question’) quite turbulent and these stories (in my opinion) deserve attention. Also, your remarks re: Homestead are spot on – this site is critical to understanding the shift from skilled trades to mass production.