President Obama came into town Thursday to designate the city’s Pullman area a national monument. The company town built by the founder of the Pullman Company railroad empire was one of the nation’s first planned industrial communities and is considered a historic location threatened by economic blight and neglect. It was also railroad company where Black Pullman Porters worked and carried the Chicago Defender newspaper to the south to southern Blacks to read and be inspired to change their lives and was a catalyst to the Great Migration. Because of this Blacks in Chicago have an instinctual connection to the Pullman area and its history. The designation will help preserve the factories and other buildings on the 203-acre site, where many Blacks lived while working as porters, waiters and maids on the railroad’s luxury cars, and helped begin a labor and civil rights movement.
The importance of this event is significant enough for the President to come to Chicago and so it was that he did and yet the greatest impact may have been the benefit bestowed the President’s friend and former chief of staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is running for re-election here and faces voters next week. It was as if the President came to set the record straight.
Today, we take another giant step forward in Pullman’s promise,” Mayor Emanuel said as he introduced the president at the event. “Pullman will now belong not to all of Chicago, but to all of America.”
He quickly added, “Please welcome my friend, Chicago’s favorite son, the president of the United States, Barack Obama.”
“Before Rahm was a big-shot mayor, he was an essential part of my team,” The President shared with a crowd of students and teachers at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, with the Mayor sitting nearby. “I could not be prouder of him and the extraordinary service that he’s provided.”
Mayor Emanuel was already an established politician, having served three terms in Congress and as a staff member in the Clinton White House, before President Obama picked him in late 2008 to manage his White House.
But his time as chief of staff in the first years of President Obama’s presidency fused their political futures. President Obama has already made a radio ad on Mayor Emanuel’s behalf, lending the power of the presidency to the Mayor’s political fortunes.
“I relied on his judgment every day and his smarts every day and his toughness every day,” President Obama said Thursday, using the Pullman event to underscore his support for his friend’s campaign.
The President’s endorsement is key to a potential boost to the election efforts of Mayor Emanuel, who is seeking to bolster his support among the city’s Black voters in order to capture more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff. The mayor, like other politicians and community leaders in Chicago, had fought for years on behalf of the Pullman area. And that’s a good thing.
For his part, Mayor Emanuel has become one of the biggest proponents of bringing Obama’s presidential library to Chicago, which the President calls home. Last month, members of the Barack Obama Foundation, which is overseeing development of the library, indicated their displeasure with the Chicago bid, raising questions about the city’s commitment and about Mayor Emanuel’s clout in his own city.
At the time, the Mayor vowed that the library “belongs in Chicago.”
The President took time to announce two other national monuments: the Honolulu National Monument in Hawaii and the Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado. He didn’t stop there but rather introduced a new program to allow fourth graders and their families to visit national parks free of charge.
And finally President Obama focused on the Pullman monument as he described the history of the Pullman years, when Blacks went on strike and eventually formed the first Black union to receive an American Federation of Labor charter. “These men and women, without rank, without wealth or title, became the bedrock of a new middle class,” President Obama said, noting that his wife Michelle’s great-grandfather was a Pullman porter. He continued,“Part of what we are preserving here is also history. It’s understanding that places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary.”
After his remarks on Thursday, President Obama sat down at a table on the stage here to sign the proclamation creating the Pullman National Monument. Mayor Emanuel stood directly over his friend President Obama’s left shoulder — in eye-sight of of all and the many cameras to see that their connection is real.