September 1, 2008 - It was a warm day with nothing but blue sky in Chicago on Labor Day, perfect for a picnic on the beach, yet a crowd of nearly 350 from all over the city gathered in the Pullman neighborhood on the southeast edge of the City to celebrate the meaning of the Day. The event was organized by Tom Shepherd, president of the Pullman Civic Association and hosted by the Pullman State Historic Site headquartered in the Florence Hotel.
The event took place in the state owned sleeping car factory behind the famous Pullman Clock Tower. It was a vast space in which a small stage had been constructed and folding chairs installed for the occasion.
And, what an occasion it proved to be! This was much more than the standard labor day meeting. This time the stars were Eugene V. Debs; Jennie Curtis, a leader of the 1894 Pullman Strike; A. Philip Randolph, head of the Sleeping Car Porters union; and none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal brought a much needed "Change" to Washington in 1933, almost 75 years ago. Not only did these actors bear a physical resemblance to their subjects, but each one recalled convincingly the significant episodes from their historical roles. Especially thrilling was R.J. Lindsay in the role of President Roosevelt, with his cigarette holder cocked at the correct angle, the fedora hat, the cane, even the unique speech patterns of F.D. R. Indeed, most of his words were drawn directly from F.D.R's own speeches.
[LarryFDR] Young Jennie Curtis looked perfect for the part, in a simple long cotton dress, a perky hat and a tidy apron. She told of her appearance before the 1894 convention of the American Railway Union where she described the plight of the Pullman factory workers who had suffered repeated wage cuts side by side with the same high rents charged by the company. In response to her appeal for help, the delegates voted to impose a boycott of Pullman cars with the result that trains were stopped when crew members refused to work such trains. Among the consequences were a federal injunction, the imprisonment of union president Eugene Debs, and the destruction of the union.
Eugene Debs was played by Mike Wolf, a former steelworker and area resident. He told of his radicalization while serving time in Woodstock Jail due to the federal injunction against the Pullman strike. Following his release, he became the perennial candidate of the Socialist Party, even drawing a million votes while imprisoned for opposing American involvement in World War I.
A. Philip Randolph, played by D.J. Howard with great dignity, told of the ten year struggle of the Sleeping Car Porters who ultimately organized a nation-wide union. That union under Randolph's leadership, won its first national contract in 1937. (The IILHS holds in its collections a copy of that contract booklet.)
Earlier, the Program had been opened with remarks from ILHS President Larry Spivack. Concluding remarks were offered by James Thwinda, Chicago Area Director of Jobs with Justice. Greetings in person were brought to the crowd by Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn and State Representative Connie Howard.
The Illinois Labor History Society was a co-sponsor of the event. Other co-sponsor organizations included the Illinois State AFL-CIO, Historic Pullman Foundation, Bronzeville Black Historical Society, Calumet Heritage Partnership, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and the Center for Working Class Studies.