Great things can have humble beginnings.

This story begins on the south side of Chicago. The Pullman Company, a manufacturer of luxury railroad cars, built a neighborhood named Pullman for its factory workers. Over the decades, those Pullman employees assumed important roles in African-American and U.S. labor history. Far-reaching social change was born in that humble Chicago neighborhood. That’s why President Obama has named it a national monument.

During the 1890s, many black workers just a generation removed from slavery took jobs as porters and domestics on (often Pullman-built) railroad cars, serving white passengers. Their working conditions often were less favorable than those for whites, but these “Pullman Porters” earned a steady wage. For many,  working on the railroad meant the chance to grab a rung on the ladder to the middle class.

The Pullman Company offered better working conditions than most other manufacturers of the 1870s. But during an economic recession, George Pullman cut workers’ wages without reducing his workers’ rent in the Pullman neighborhood. The workers objected, and soon railroad workers nationwide boycotted the Pullman cars in support. The humble Chicago Pullman neighborhood became a key location of labor activism.

Boys play in the Pullman neighborhood, now declared a national monument for its significance as a wellspring for social and cultural breakthroughs. (© AP Images)

In time the Pullman Porters would form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union to sign a contract with a major corporation.

Their solidarity became one seed from which the century-altering civil rights movement would grow.

“I want future generations to know that while the Pullman porters helped push forward our rights to vote, and to work, and to live as equals, their legacy goes beyond even that,” President Obama said. “These men and women without rank, without wealth or title became the bedrock of a new middle class. These men and women gave their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had.”

Michelle Obama is a great-granddaughter of a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union its founder called “the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom.”