I don’t often mix my work into More to Come…. But then again, I don’t often hear the President speak so eloquently about the work with which I’m engaged. Last Thursday was one of those days.
After 24 hours in my own house, I was on the road once again to Chicago last week. Cold. Frigid. Windy. Chicago. It wasn’t a destination I would have sought out in February, except for the fact that President Barack Obama was going to designate Pullman a National Monument. At the National Trust, we were part of a coalition working for this designation, and I was proud to join our team at the celebration.
These types of events with government and political leaders are often perfunctory – at least from the politician’s standpoint. Last Thursday – with the President on his home turf – was anything but. You knew we were in for a treat when his opening remarks began with this ode to Chicago’s winter: “It’s always been a dream of mine to be the first President to designate a national monument in subzero conditions.”
Pullman, if you do not know the history, is a remarkably intact industrial town of historic buildings and landscapes. Located 13 miles south of downtown Chicago, it was built by industrialist George Pullman and through all the change that has taken place in this small community, it stands today as representative of the heart of the American Labor movement. Strikes that began in Pullman in 1893 and spread across the country led – in the long arc of history – to the establishment of Labor Day, a 40-hour work week, the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplace conditions, and the right to organize for higher wages and better opportunities. The first African-American Union – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – had ties to Pullman. The men and women who worked and labored in Pullman – white and black – helped create the American middle class.
President Obama told the story of Pullman in deeply personal terms, as they related to his life, the life of his family, and to the life of all Americans.
I want this younger generation, I want future generations to come learn about their past. Because I guarantee you there are a lot of young people right here in Chicago, just a few blocks away, living in this neighborhood who may not know that history.
I want future generations to know that while the Pullman porters helped push forward our rights to vote, and to work, and to live as equals, their legacy goes beyond even that. These men and women without rank, without wealth or title, became the bedrock of a new middle class. These men and women gave their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had.
Here in Chicago, one of those porter’s great-granddaughter had the chance to go to a great college and a great law school, and had the chance to work for the mayor, and had the chance to climb the ladder of success and serve as a leader in some of our cities’ most important institutions. And I know that because today she’s the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama.
Then he continued, and the White House transcript includes the reaction from the crowd:
So without this place, Michelle wouldn’t be where she was. There’s a reason why I’ve got one of the original copies of the program for the March on Washington, a march for jobs and justice, with A. Philip Randolph’s name right there as the first speaker, framed in my office. Because without Pullman, I might not be there. Of course without Michelle, I’d definitely not be there. (Laughter.) Whoever she married would be there. (Laughter and applause.)
Then – in contrasting the great national parks of natural beauty with a place like Pullman – the President spoke directly to the students who filled the bleachers in the high school gymnasium, saying:
…To the young people here today, that’s what I hope you take away from this place. It is right that we think of our national monuments as these amazing vistas, and mountains, and rivers. But part of what we’re preserving here is also history. It’s also understanding that places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary. You can make something happen, the same way these workers here at Pullman made something happen.
That’s not to tell you that life is always going to be fair, or even that America will always live up to its ideals. But it is to teach us that no matter who you are, you stand on the shoulders of giants. You stand on the site of great historic movements. And that means you can initiate great historic movements by your own actions.
It was a day of great celebration. It was a day when one of the country’s most eloquent presidential speakers was able – because of what Pullman meant to him as a man, a husband, a father, a worker, and an American – to explain to all Americans why Pullman matters today, and tomorrow, and to future generations. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis were on hand, and I shared with them an ad we placed in that morning’s Chicago Tribune thanking the President, Secretary, and Director for their leadership in saving Pullman. And there were more than 500 people from the neighborhood – people who have been saving Pullman and recognizing its relevance for decades – who were there as well.
And I did say it was a celebration for the entire neighborhood. Argus Brewery makes fine craft beer in a former Schlitz distribution center in Pullman. To celebrate the monument designation, they produced a one-day only brew – Pullman Monumental Lager. My colleagues in our Chicago office got a case, and we shared one beer after the party. Even the President had four cases delivered to Air Force One. Unfortunately, I was flying United and couldn’t take mine with me through airport security…something that isn’t a problem for the President!
What a way to celebrate! Congratulations to all the folks in Pullman and the organizations such as the National Parks and Conservation Association who worked so hard to make this happen.
And if you have about 25 or 30 minutes, do yourself a favor and listen to the President’s remarks about Pullman. It is a great history lesson. The President’s comments begin after the 32 minute mark.
More to come…