While Pullman Porter Blues doesn’t exactly take place in Chicago, the characters’ minds and hearts are with the Windy City as they travel aboard the Panama Limited Pullman Train from Chicago to New Orleans. The play takes place on June 22, 1937, the night when African American boxer Joe Louis was set to battle James Braddock for the world heavyweight championship at Soldier Field.
A major influence on both the play and the time period it takes place in was the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender. In Pullman Porter Blues, African American porter Monroe Sykes delivers the paper to the South by tossing newspapers out of the trains into the hands of southern African Americans. In the 1930s, many African Americans still didn’t have access to northern news outlets, and the spread of the Defender to those communities by northern porters was a key way for people in that region to receive word about jobs and opportunities up North.
Many of the Chicago Defender archives are housed in the Newberry Library here in the city. The library also contains a very large archive of Pullman Company artifacts. The Goodman’s new media team decided to take a field trip to the Newberry Library to learn more about what the paper’s coverage of this historic fight and get some insight into 1937 Pullman porter life.
Embarrassingly enough, this was our first trip to the Newberry Library. Madeline hid her face in the Pullman Archive book in shame.
Once we got a sense of where we needed to find the things we were looking for (fourth floor for boxed archived Pullman Company materials, third floor for Chicago Defender archives) we headed down to the research room to look at some Defender newspaper microfilm. After battling with the microfilm machine (and winning, thanks to the help of a friendly librarian) we checked out some film from 1936.
Wait, you say, doesn’t the play take place in 1937? Yes. OK. We looked at the wrong year at first, but look what we found! The year prior to the Joe Louis V. Braddock match, Louis was up against German fighter Max Schmeling. Louis lost, which was a huge upset to his nearly spotless record. The paper covered the story for days and days:
After poring over the 1936 paper, we got back on track and jumped to June 1937 of the Chicago Defender to see what the coverage was like of the fight then.
Unfortunately the archives did not have the issue that came out the day after the fight, but they did have some subsequent papers that gave us a sense of the joy surrounding Joe’s win:
If you enjoyed this look back at 1930s history, stay tuned for an upcoming post about what we found in the Pullman Company archives! A big thanks to the Newberry Library for being so helpful in our hunt for 1930s Chicago history.