Our newest exhibit, Freedom Train 1947-1949: Exhibiting America’s Past to Shape America’s Future, opens next Friday, July 1, and the collections staff has been hard at work on installation. The Freedom Train was a massive traveling exhibition of over 125 American historical documents, housed in a specially designed train, that crossed the country from September 1947 to January 1949, visiting all 48 states and attracting attendance of 3.5 million visitors. The idea for the train came out of the Justice Department, although they eventually turned to private supporters and created the non-profit American Heritage Foundation to actually run the project. (Some readers may also remember a second Freedom Train that traveled the country for the 1976 Bicentennial with a mixture of historic documents and artifacts.)
The documents on board the original Freedom Train ranged from the Bay Psalm Book to Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence to the German and Japanese surrender documents from World War II. Philip and Dr. R. were lenders to the train and Dr. R also served on the Document Advisory Committee that helped decide what should be included in the exhibit. Our exhibit will include sixteen of the Freedom Train documents; five are the exact copies that traveled on the train, others are the same book, but not exactly the actual copy that traveled (for example, we are displaying the Free Library’s copy of Mourt’s Relation, instead of the Library of Congress copy). We have also created an interactive that digitally reunites all 125+ documents.
The Freedom Train itself debuted in Philadelphia on September 17, 1947, Constitution Day, before beginning its 37,000 mile journey around the country.
The train was accompanied by a massive citizenship education campaign organized around the slogan “Freedom is Everybody’s Job.” This rededication campaign reached one out of every three Americans by utilizing every venue from newspapers to newsreels to Captain Marvel comics and Popeye cartoons. Here are Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing the Freedom Train theme song, which was written by Irving Berlin.
The Freedom Train has so many fascinating stories associated with it; the documents themselves are compelling, as is the debate over what should be included and what image the organizers strove to present of America as the nation emerged from decades of depression and war into a new Cold War world. There is also an important civil rights story: the question of whether the Freedom Train—an exhibit dedicated to freedom—would allow segregated visitation as it passed through areas that enforced segregation. Langston Hughes penned the protest poem “Freedom Train” that pointedly raised this question and we will be displaying his manuscript of the poem in our exhibit, on loan from the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library at Fisk University. Ultimately a policy of desegregated visitation was adopted and the African American community kept pressure on the organizers to follow through. Most cities proved willing to comply (although there were ongoing debates about what exactly constituted segregated or desegregated visitation) but stops were cancelled in Memphis and Birmingham when they refused to create desegregated viewing plans.
Amid all the serious historical stories, one element of the Freedom Train that pleased our collection staff was the wonderful pictures of National Archives staff installing Freedom Train documents in nice dresses and pearls. Around here, our installation attire usually tends more towards the t-shirt and jeans with a screwdriver sticking out of the back pocket. We decided to walk in our foremothers’ footsteps and dress up a bit for this installation. I’ll wrap up this post with a few then and now pictures: