Superficially, it was a hat: worn, discolored, mundane. It once belonged to a Pullman Company sleeping-car porter, an African-American man—the headpiece to a pristine white uniform. Patricia Heaston got it from a friend, whose father was a porter, more than 30 years ago. Heaston, a clinical psychologist, obsessively collected such keepsakes for decades to better understand how black children develop their self-image. This past January, she brought the porter's hat to the National Museum of African American History and Culture's inaugural collections initiative, held at the Chicago Public Library.
The presentation of the cap inspired an excited, impromptu explanation of the occupation's impact on African-Americans. "The story of the Pullman car porters is the key to many things," said Jacquelyn Serwer, the museum's chief curator. It's a story that begins with social mobility; in the 1920s, when the Pullman Company was the largest employer of African-American men in the country, the occupation represented a relatively high-paying, respectable job—albeit one with inequities. The porters had to pay for their own meals and uniforms, which in 1925 led to the formation of the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The train attendants were instrumental in other ways. "They could bring back stories to give people a sense of the bigger world available to them," Serwer said. "And because they provided the information that stimulated people to make the move from the South to the North, they were important to the Great Migration."
"In some ways, the little object allows us to tell the great story," said Lonnie Bunch, the museum's founding director. To find such things, he created "Save Our African American Treasures," an enterprising call for families nationwide to ransack attics and basements for historical heirlooms. The initiative has two goals: raising awareness that everyday items gathering dust in people's homes could be crucial to telling the story of African-Americans to future generations; and teaching basic preservation techniques. The museum is planning similar events in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C.
In Chicago, more than 150 people brought myriad mementos (quilts, Bibles, irons, bank documents and dolls) for Smithsonian conservators to review. Most of the items returned home, but a few will be considered for exhibits at the museum when it opens in 2015.
At the event, an attempt at delicateness quickly gave way to excitement as Bunch removed the Pullman porter's hat from the acid-free tissue paper in which a senior Smithsonian textiles conservator had wrapped it. It was a white hat, a particularly significant commodity, which meant that its owner had tended to prominent guests (perhaps even presidents) on a private train car. "This is the treasure of treasures," Bunch told Heaston, before asking whether she'd consider donating it to the museum. She proved an easy sell: "I'm not going to [unwrap it] until it goes to Washington," she said afterward.