September 15, 2014

Q&A with Sherry Williams of the Bronzeville Historical Society

A photo of a Pullman Porter on display during a 2009 exhibit on the Great Migration at Pullman’s Hotel Florence.
A photo of a Pullman Porter on display during a 2009 exhibit on the Great Migration at Pullman’s Hotel Florence.

While the historic neighborhoods of Pullman and Bronzeville in Chicago’s South Side are 11 miles apart geographically, they are linked by a common industrial thread. Pullman, a company town established by businessman George Pullman in 1880 to house workers in his Pullman Palace rail car factory, was segregated, and the company’s numerous African-American employees were relegated to the not-so-nearby community of Bronzeville. Some made the trek to the factory every day, while others did laundry or prepared food in Pullman-owned buildings in Bronzeville.

With legislation pending for Pullman to be designated as a National Park site, history buffs in Bronzeville, like Sherry Williams, the president of the Bronzeville Historical Society, are advocating for their community’s rich history to be included in the story told at Pullman. I spoke with Williams about the Great Migration, the role that African-American workers played at Pullman, and her own personal connection to Bronzeville.

How long have you lived in Bronzeville?

I was born in Englewood in 1960, but my adult life was in Bronzeville. My family migrated to Bronzeville in 1942 from Mississippi. So I’ve had family that still lives here, even when I returned as an adult [in 1990] and lived in Bronzeville.

Can you tell me a little bit about the origins of the Bronzeville Historical Society?

The organization started in 1999. It grew out of my concern and my children’s concern at the diminishing number of historic sites. A lot of demolition was taking place in Bronzeville in the ‘80s, well up until the ‘90s. Some of the structures had very significant historic value, but many of them were still demolished despite their historic value.

So we started a historical society, incorporated in 1999. We got a 501(c)3 in 2002 to help preserve the history of not just its residents, but potentially to galvanize and save structures from demolition, and also to get structures landmarked.

The 2009 exhibit included information about some of the famous people that lived in Bronzeville, such as jazz pianist Nat King Cole.
The 2009 exhibit included information about some of the famous people that lived in Bronzeville, such as jazz pianist Nat King Cole.

I understand that the Bronzeville Historical Society has some archives at the Pullman State Historic Site. What are some of the things that are contained in the archives?

We have not only documents and photographs, but we have artifacts that were brought by migrants from the South to Chicago. That would include washboards, rolling pins, I have my great-grandmother’s rocking chair there. We’ve got a quilt, lots of glassware, a potbelly stove.

That is the core of what we use to interpret black life in Chicago. These things have been on display time and time again in the Hotel Florence at the Pullman State Historic Site for the past seven years.

Who were some of the famous people who lived in Bronzeville or grew up in Bronzeville?

The earlier would be giants like Jack Johnson, the boxer, as well as several other boxers as well. Joe Louis also had residence in Bronzeville. Those two are quite famous for their boxing careers. Jack Johnson was the first African-American to achieve the world boxing championship.

Louis Armstrong, the jazz great, lived in Bronzeville. So did Mahalia Jackson, the gospel legend. [Journalist and early civil rights leader] Ida B. Wells' home is now a city and state landmark.

My daughters and I compiled a book that we published in 1999, called 100 Notable People and Places in Bronzeville. It lists those whom I just mentioned, along with their actual addresses. Some of these notables do have markers in front of their properties. But many other notable properties sit without any historic marker on them, yet the record is available and clear.

Can you tell me a little bit about the connection between Pullman and Bronzeville?

What needs to be clearly understood is that more than 6 million African-American migrants left the South, and many boarded Pullman trains to come to Chicago. Because of racial covenants, there were restrictions all the way up until 1948 that prevented blacks from purchasing property beyond the boundaries set by Illinois statues. And so when blacks, although they worked for the Pullman Company, would come into Pullman -- they worked, say, as wait staff at the Hotel Florence -- they did not live in Pullman. They had to live in Bronzeville. The wait staff and also what we call those commissary workers, so the food, and those that did the laundry, those buildings that were owned by the Pullman Company are in Bronzeville. Some of them are still standing.

The earliest that African-Americans were able to move into the Pullman community was the late 1960s/early '70s. But the remnants of segregation remained in the Pullman community, and I think it’s upwards of about 75 to 80 percent white even today.

Bronzeville Historical Society members Tiffany Bruessard, Joe Thornton, and Sherry Williams pose on the front steps of Pullman’s Hotel Florence.
Bronzeville Historical Society members Joi Tucker Boose, Aaron Chandler, and Tiffany Bruessard pose on the front steps of Pullman’s Hotel Florence.

What are some ways you envision African-American heritage being highlighted in the potential Pullman National Park?

I definitely would love to see highlighted the fact that Ida B. Wells was forced off of a train because of segregation. The Pullman Company continued to support these rigid racial laws restricting blacks and whites from sharing the same train car. I really would like to see conversations about that, as well as signage and interpretation around these rights that were challenged on trains.

Even myself, I remember all the way up until 1969, [when] you took a train to the South, when you got to Memphis, Tennessee, you had to get out of the car and go to the Jim Crow car. And while many people look at the advances that were made in African-American civil rights, they don’t understand that despite litigation and all of the things that occurred following the March on Washington, and even the assassination of Martin Luther King, it did not change the code. So, you know, I remember, I’m 54, I remember having to get up and go to the Jim Crow car.

Those sound like really important stories.

Right. They wouldn’t be difficult to put together -- not at all. You’ve got living historians that can tell you the difference in accommodations, the filth that we as passengers had to sit in after paying for our tickets for passage. Ridiculous. You couldn’t even imagine it. The visuals of it could be a very strong impact. So many people believe that segregation ended very soon after Rosa Parks broke those restrictions in Memphis, but that wasn’t the case for all transportation.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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