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Thoughts on Tragic Loss of the Historic International Hotel 

CM Robinson and Staff

Jun 30, 2023

Recently, Councilwoman Robinson had the pleasure of attending the Pullman Neighborhood Council meeting where we celebrated the 90th birthday of Council President Mrs. Naomi Williams and sat together discussing many issues of concern to local neighbors. 

We discussed concerns about boats and mobile homes parked without being moved for months on end, the need for street and street sign repairs, as well as the prevalent problem of overgrown weeds and abandoned properties and simple ways the City can be more supportive of Neighborhood Councils like Pullman that do not have outside funds or non-profit sponsorship to help them communicate more with neighbors.

After Councilmember Robinson brought these concerns back to the Richmond City Manager’s office prompt action was taken by the Public Works Department and Code Enforcement to address many of the issues raised, resulting in their resolution in the following week. This success showcases how neighborhood councils can be an effective tool for residents to raise and resolve concerns when they work together with elected officials and key city staff.

One issue that particularly resonated with attendees was the tragic loss of the historic International Hotel. The hotel, which was pivotal in African-American history, was destroyed in a catastrophic fire in early June 2023. The hotel was a gathering place for black train porters, known as the Pullman Porters, who organized the first-ever black union known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the early 1920s. The International Hotel, constructed in 1900 by A. Phillip Randolph, offered accommodation and dining facilities to black porters visiting Richmond, California, where the Pullman Company serviced its cross-country rail cars.

The hotel held immense significance as a center for organizing and socializing, leading to the establishment of the National Brotherhood of Black Sleeping Car Railroad Porters Union. Notably, the building also served as an after-hours night club, attracting renowned performers like Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, who entertained the railroad porters during the World War II era. Moreover, the International Hotel had a reputation for being haunted, adding to its mystique and historical allure.

Regrettably, this recent fire completely destroyed the hotel, and caused significant damage to the adjacent houses. Consequently, all three properties have been red-tagged. However, the Pullman Neighborhood Council, in collaboration with concerned individuals, including Councilwoman Doria Robinson and Vice Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, are determined to ensure that the memory and contributions of the Pullman Porters are not forgotten.

One proposed initiative is establishing a historical marker on the site, serving as a reminder of the rich history associated with the Pullman workers and the city of Richmond. This would be a minimum requirement to honor the contributions of these workers and the broader labor movement and to commemorate the rich cultural history of the site. 

Additionally, the meeting attendees put forward inspiring ideas for repurposing the space. One suggestion was to create a community center or hub that would educate people about the history of the Pullman workers and serve as a venue for community meetings, celebrations, and other events. This vision aims to make history come alive and foster a sense of collective ownership and engagement rather than relegating it solely to museum exhibits.

Furthermore, there was a suggestion to explore the possibility of acquiring the three parcels of land, including the fire-damaged properties, and developing them into a housing complex. This development could incorporate the envisioned community center and museum, thereby honoring the Pullman workers' legacy while simultaneously addressing the pressing need for housing in Richmond. This dual-purpose approach would serve as a fitting tribute to the Pullman workers and the International Hotel, reflecting their historical significance and addressing present-day community needs.

To advance this project, a collaboration between the Pullman Neighborhood Council, other local neighborhood councils, other interested community members, stakeholders and elected officials will be vital. By pooling resources, expertise, and community support, it becomes possible to navigate challenges and make a beautiful vision a reality.

It is undeniably disheartening to witness the loss of such a historic structure. However, through collective determination and a commitment to preserving the stories and contributions of the Pullman workers, we can honor their memory and ensure their legacy lives on. 

The recent fire may have ravaged the physical structure of the International Hotel,  but its spirit and significance remain etched in the hearts of those who understand its historical importance. 

Next Steps:

  • In order to move this project forward Councilmember Robinson and McLaughlin are doing research to better understand current conditions, how to support the current owner, as well as researching zoning and other constraints.

  • They will also be co-sponsoring a community meeting during the week of Labor Day with Councilmember McLaughlin to bring forward more information about the property and hear more ideas from the community and stakeholders on their vision for the site. 

*Please check back in August 2023 for the Community Meeting date, time and location announcements...

Social Media and other Media Coverage of the Fire: 

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