Adding Perspective to a Presidential Visit
It’s a given that when the president comes to town, it’s a big news story. The key for ASPR is to find ways for its clients to connect in meaningful and insightful ways to such a visit. George M. Pullman Educational Foundation and its executive director Robin Redmond had an important perspective to share about their benefactor when President Obama recently visited Chicago and declared the Pullman community a historic landmark. This op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times opened minds and created new visibility for the foundation at a critical time.
George Pullman, much maligned, opened doors to opportunity
President Barack Obama’s visit to Chicago on Thursday to designate the community of Pullman as a national monument marks a first and a great honor for Chicago. Established as a company town by the railroad magnate and industrialist George Mortimer Pullman, the community of Pullman and the man who established it are more than worthy of such a tribute.
Sadly, George Pullman today is most known for his role in the Strike of 1894. But Pullman was an entrepreneur and — like his peers of that era — he had to make difficult decisions during tough economic times. He wasn’t always right, but he was an innovator who took risks and opened doors for many who had been excluded from the opportunities that the industrial revolution created.
The creation of his company town and his decision to hire freed blacks as porters for his rail line, while controversial, were progressive ideas and contributed in many ways to social progress. The results of these bold ideas equaled economic and social mobility for thousands of families for over a century. While most laborers in the 1880s lived in deplorable conditions in Chicago’s crowded tenement on the city’s west and south sides, Pullman employees lived in their own homes. Nearby were clean parks and good schools. And in the African-American community, Pullman porters, who traveled across the United States, quietly sharing news of black life in America, were held in the highest regard.
Although he quit school in the 4th grade, Pullman had a passion for education and the foresight to conceptualize and endow the Pullman Free School of Manual Training. Established in 1915 with $1.2 million bequeath by Pullman, Pullman Tech, as it was known in the Pullman/Roseland community, was a groundbreaking vocational high school that educated the children of Pullman employees in trades like auto mechanics, architectural and mechanical drawing, and machine shop, 20th century skills and revolutionary concepts for the time.
When the Pullman Tech could no longer meet the educational needs of a changing work force, Pullman’s granddaughter, Florence Lowden Miller, established the George M. Pullman Educational Foundation with funds her grandfather bequeathed. In 1950, the Foundation awarded its first set of merit-based, need-based scholarships to 60 young men and women to attend the college of their choice. Sixty-five years later, nearly 13,000 proud Pullman Scholars are a living testament to Pullman’s bold vision. Now professionals — doctors, lawyers, executives, scientists, and engineers — the majority of Pullman Scholars were the first in their families or neighborhoods to attend college. Younger siblings and neighborhood friends often followed their example. Currently, 160 Pullman Scholars are receiving more than $800,000 in scholarships and educational support annually to attend Stanford University, Grinnell College, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and many more.
Research documents the value of a college education in promoting economic efficiency, social justice, and social mobility. Opportunity is much greater among college-educated adults than it is among adults with less education. Bricks and mortar are a lovely, singular testament of one’s accomplishments in life. But imagine the power of earning a college degree and its effect on the economic and social trajectory of a family, and perhaps, a community. It is called a ripple effect. That is George Pullman’s legacy.
Two of my great uncles worked as porters on Pullman’s rail line, a bit of family history my parents shared with me a shortly after I became the Foundation’s executive director. I am honored to be a steward of George Pullman’s legacy, working to ensure future generations of young people and their families have the opportunity to earn a college degree, and as such, pursue their own vision of the American Dream. And as I learn more about George Pullman, I am not surprised that my family has been influenced by him.
Robin Redmond is the executive director of the George M. Pullman Educational Foundation.