The Freedom Train and the Contagion of Liberty, 1947-1949

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park

Late in 1946, Attorney General Tom Clark, concerned about the direction American life was taking in the wake of World War II, decided something dramatic was needed to increase public awareness of their heritage of freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship.  What he had in mind was a plan to dramatize the American way of life through a traveling exhibition of the most important collection of original American documents and a related educational program.  With the help and financial assistance of many influential businesses, organizations, and individuals he helped create in early 1947 the American Heritage Foundation to have responsibility for the patriotic-educational program.

By the spring of 1947, the foundation decided it would sponsor a train tour of historically important American documents.  To ensure that the message of the documents would not be lost in the hoopla and ballyhoo of the tour, the foundation planned for a full week of organized meetings in each city visited, during which time America’s heritage and good citizenship would be discussed and promoted.  The foundation also at this time gave the name the Freedom Train to its train and the tour.

Official Freedom Train Postcard, 1948 (NAID 22123608)

To kick off the activities of the foundation and to make the nation aware of the forthcoming Freedom Train tour and program, a White House Conference was held on May 22, 1947.  Among the 175 prominent Americans present were two African Americans, Lester Granger, executive secretary of the Urban League and William White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as a trustee of the American Heritage Foundation.  At this Conference it was announced the train tour would begin at Philadelphia on September 17, 1947, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

At the White House conference potential problems of segregation were first raised and concerns expressed about the contradictions between some of the documents the train would carry and the practice of segregation.  Walter White told the conferees that “merely causing people to look at and to touch the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence is not enough…We have got to plant it so deep in the hearts of all Americans that we can demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that democracy is the best way of life, but we have got to live it as well as talk about it.”  Concluding his remarks, White pledge the unqualified support of African Americans, “who desperately want to see democracy made a living reality in our country.”

Responding to White’s concerns, Charles E Wilson, president of the General Electric Corporation and the chairman of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights was most insistent about the foundation taking a stand on the segregation issue.  As a member of its board of trustees, at a July 9, 1947 executive committee meeting, he urged that the foundation make a statement about the segregation the Freedom Train would be greeted by in the South.  Although the committee decided not to make a public announcement about segregation until the tour was underway, it agreed unanimously “that no segregation of any individual or groups of any kind on the basis of race or religion be allowed at the exhibition of the Freedom Train held anywhere.”

During the summer the train and traveling exhibition were assembled with the help of railroad companies and several Federal government agencies, including the National Archives.  The latter was responsible for physically assembling the exhibit material and their preparation for exhibition.  Among the exhibit’s 126 documents were over 30 from the National Archives’ holdings, including the Bill of Rights, Washington’s copy of the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

As the starting date for the tour got closer criticism of the project increased.  Many Americans believed that the Freedom Train was simply a product of “Wall Street imperialism,” while others believed the tour was being undertaken on behalf of the Democratic Party.  Many African Americans complained the President’s Committee on Civil Rights Report was not included among the documents to be carried.  African Americans also questioned the wisdom of the tour, especially if segregation was allowed during the exhibitions.  Lester Granger believed that “it would be a monumental travesty upon our democratic concept, if the Bill of Rights were to be exhibited to an American audience segregated according to race.”  Despite these criticisms, and although concerned about potential segregation problems and agreeing with some cynics who believed the Freedom Train was a ballyhoo stunt, Walter White was “equally convinced that it was good ballyhoo which would reawaken in the minds of Americans the passionate devotion…to the belief that all men are equal and should be given equal opportunity.”

Despite the doubts and criticism about the purpose and usefulness of the Freedom Train, on September 17, the tour began in Philadelphia.  The Freedom Train consisted of a modern locomotive, three Pullman cars, one baggage car, and three exhibit cars.  The train was painted white with a red and blue strip along both sides of its entire length, making a red, white, and blue streamer extending some eight hundred feet.  The words FREEDOM TRAIN in gold letters were placed on alternate cars, with the others having a gold eagle.  Almost thirty United States Marines were permanently assigned to protect the train and its documents.

From Philadelphia, the Freedom Train proceeded to tour New York and New England.  Each city it visited undertook various activities to renew the community’s faith in America and its institutions.  Both communities the train visited and others expressing an interest, were supplied with a variety of educational and patriotic materials to be used in their local programs.  In all, during the tour, approximately fifty million Americans participated in Rededication Week events and activities, and many more millions became aware of these events and activities and other foundation-sponsored programs as a result of national and local media campaigns.

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Integrated crowd stands before Defenders of Freedom exhibit, nd (NAID 7788666)

At each stop the Freedom Train was attended by large audiences eager to view its precious cargo, to take the Freedom Train Pledge, and to sign the Freedom Scroll.  At both Philadelphia and New York City the train became a focal point for those who desired to point out what they considered to be contradictions between the documents aboard the train and the current state of American democracy.

As the train began heading south many African American leaders expressed their concern about the possibility of segregated viewing of the documents.  John P. Davis, publisher of the African American journal Our Word, in the October issue had an editorial about the Freedom Train and a poem by Langston Hughes about freedom and the Freedom Train. To assure leaders of the Foundation’s insistence on integrated viewing, on September 29, the Foundation issued a press release to that effect.  In doing so, Winthrop W. Aldrich, chairman of the board of trustees of the foundation, stated that “it is our firm determination that the American heritage program shall be an instrumentality for strengthening the freedoms and liberties of all Americans, regardless of race, creed, or color.”

“Freedom Train” by Langston Hughes, published in Our World, Oct 1947 (NAID 22123618)

The train arrived in Washington, D.C., for the Thanksgiving holiday.  On November 27, Attorney General Clark and President Truman made statements about the Freedom Train, contrasting American freedom with conditions abroad and linking the train to the Cold War debate on foreign aid.  After visiting the train the next day, Truman observed that the ideals of the individual liberties embodied in the documents on the train were what the country was presently fighting for.

As November ended the train headed south, with the foundation’s hope that its southern swing would be more peaceful and less controversial than its tour in the north had been.  But the foundation was also aware that the forty-nine southern cities the train would visit might enforce segregation policies, which would result in confrontations and negative publicity, both of which would diminish the importance of the tour.

A September press release was issued in the hope that there would be no confrontation over the segregation issue, announcing it would not tolerate any form of segregation during the scheduled visits and had its area directors ascertain what each city’s policy on segregation would be for the scheduled visit.  If a city indicated that they would have segregated lines or separate black-white times or days, they were informed that they would be bypassed.

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“Civil rights for all regardless of race, creed, or religion are stressed Freedom Train exhibits. Greta and Joe Waggner, brother and sister, are shown studying the exhibits in New Orleans.” Daily Oklahoman, 1/25/1948 (NAID 22123608)

All but Memphis, TN and Birmingham, AL indicated that they would comply with the foundation’s integration policies.  Throughout the fall the foundation attempted to get Memphis, which was scheduled to be visited early on January 7, 1948, to relent on its segregation policy.  When it did not, Memphis was stricken from the schedule.  Many Memphis citizens did not approve of their city’s segregation policy and began a campaign to force a reconsideration of the cancellation decision.  The resulting debate led many people to believe that if even the train did not come, at least its ideals had come to town.

Other southerners and southern communities offered to take Memphis’ place, guaranteeing no segregation.  The mayor of Atlanta, Georgia stated “I am willing to stand beside any American citizen, regardless of race or creed, in mutual admiration and respect for those great historical chargers of American freedom.”  But the Memphis mayor and political leaders believed the foundation would back down and allow the train to visit their city and thus did not relent, even with all the public pressure.  The foundation allowed the cancellation to stand, which prompted the president of Tuskegee Institute to inform the foundation that its handling of Memphis was the type of courageous action that would produce the “kind of an atmosphere in which the full significance of the Freedom Train may be appreciated.”  “For one of the very first times in history,” Walter White wrote after learning of the cancellation, “the rest of country had called the bluff of the reactionary South.”

Numerous individuals, including one of the foundation’s trustees, questioned the wisdom of the Memphis cancellation, believing a visit to a segregated Memphis would be an educational lesson both for the nation and for Memphis.  Responding to such suggestions, Louis A. Novins, the foundation’s executive vice president, observed that “perhaps the cancellation of the Memphis visit has had a better education impact than the appearance of the train itself.  He believed the foundation’s “insistence on the absence of segregation has set new precedents in many Southern cities and has contributed to the progress in the fulfillment of the best spirit of the documents of the Freedom Train.”  “We can only hope,” he informed one foundation trustee, “that municipal officials [of the southern communities] will not make it necessary for us to withhold the inspiration of the exhibit from those who need it most.”

The municipal officials of Birmingham, including the infamous Eugene “Bull” Connor, despite the Memphis cancellation, desired a form of segregation when the train was schedule to visit their city on December 29, 1947.

Telegram from “Bull” Connor to the American Heritage Foundation, 12/24/1947 (NAID 7788666)

The foundation attempted to persuade the Birmingham officials to fully integrate the exhibit in their city.  The foundation president Thomas D’Arcy Brophy on December 16 telegrammed Birmingham’s mayor that “there can be no racial segregation on the Freedom train.  All citizens must have equal opportunity to view historic documents of our American heritage.  To do otherwise would violate the spirit of these documents and the Freedom train.”

When the city officials failed to allow integrated lines, the Foundation on December 24, cancelled the Birmingham visit.

Telegram from Thomas D’Arcy Brophy, President, American Heritage Foundation, 12/24/1947 (NAID 7788666)

Reaction to the cancellation was immediate.  Walter White, learning of the cancellation, telegrammed the foundation that “the decision to withdraw [the] Freedom Train from Birmingham and thus put [the] Bill of Rights above local segregation laws, is the greatest Christmas gift to the cause of Democracy which can be given.”  In a syndicated column, White wrote that the decision of the Foundation not to be “cajoled or blackjacked” had dome more “to make sharp and clear the issue of bigotry versus democracy than any other episode of recent years. If the Freedom Train has accomplished nothing more than that, it has been worth all the time and money put into its creation.”  On Christmas day, The New York Times gave the Birmingham cancellation story front page coverage and the following day reported the Freedom Train was “apparently doing an even better job of education than its sponsors had hoped.”  It also noted “If the Freedom Train serves to awaken the consciousness of areas where racial discrimination is practiced and to point out the essential un-Americanism of such attitudes to the people and to the leaders of those areas, then its 33,000 mile journey will, indeed, have been worthwhile.”  Sharing these sentiments was executive assistant to the Attorney General, H. Graham Morrison.  He wrote Novins that the foundation’s stand “will further assist to defeat the minority feeling in certain Southern communities on this problem and reawaken the good citizenship of the community an insistence upon fair play which is the essence of the American tradition.”

Similar thoughts to those above were echoed in Birmingham and in the South.  An editorial in The Birmingham Age-Herald on December 26, stated that the important things would be learned from the cancellation and observed that “obviously it is a time for all citizens to make special efforts towards understanding collaboration in the common interest.”  It was joined in these views by an editorial in The Birmingham World on December 30, when it noted that “not that the big opportunity has been missed, let us cleanse ourselves.  Let us of goodwill and good sense determine now that we are going to face bravely and with new faith genuine freedom in the new way.  Let a new and wholesome civic spirit come that will cause us to feel that we are citizens of good purpose.”  A January 2, 1948, editorial in the same newspaper expressed the hope the Freedom train would be given another tour and that when it did, “Birmingham shamed by the example of other Alabama and Southern cities, ought to be in the forefront on asking that they be displayed here.”

Despite the cancellation, interest in the Freedom Train remained high in Birmingham.  Most of its newspapers sent correspondents to cover the Alabama tour and many citizens of Birmingham visited the Freedom Train in other Alabama cities, including an African American contingent that traveled to Tuscaloosa as a “freedom motorcade.”  A correspondence of The Birmingham Post reported on December 29, that in Tuscaloosa “there were no incidents as a result of the lack of segregation.”  Similarly, The Birmingham Age-Herald reported on December 27, that the train had visited Mobile, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa “without any form of segregation” and that both races had moved through the train together “with not a semblance of disorder or ill-will toward each other.”

“Visit of ‘Freedom Train’ too Short for Tuscaloosa” The Birmingham Post, 12/29/1947 (NAID 7788666)

What had been the result of the Southern tour of the Freedom Train?  At Nashville, a white man told an interviewer (The New York Times Magazine, January 25, 1948), “You can quote me as saying this (integrated line at the Freedom train) won’t change anybody’s mind on segregation.  But some people have found out today it didn’t hurt them to take their turn-no matter what color they are.  Maybe they will think about that some time.”  Walter White, writing in a syndicated column, believed the Southern tour had “made decent Southerners aware of how ridiculous the South is being made to appear.”  He hoped that this awareness would “continue to grow until intelligent Americans, particularly in the South, wake up to face that divisions of Americans on racial lines creates two opposing battle lines with a  no-mans land of hatred and suspicion between them which can only create more instead of less trouble.”  The New York Times on December 26, observed the train was helping to break down barriers “of racial discrimination that some of its documents declare do not exist in law, should not exist in fact and must not be retained if this country is to attain that measure of greatness which founders hoped for.”  The fact that African Americans and whites had, in many Southern cities, stood in a single line certainly did not cause either to suffer, and in fact, “both surely profited” it concluded.

The Freedom Train visited forty-seven cities without segregation problems, and, according to one foundation executive, in no instance was there a “single incident to mar the decorum, dignity and patriotic spirit of the crowds.”  This in itself, Louis A. Novins believed, represented a constructive achievement and established a precedent throughout the South, which was all the more impressive, considering “almost all of these cities have segregation laws covering public gatherings.”

“Aboard the Freedom Train, residents of Nashville examine early landmarks in the struggle for civil rights. There was ‘freedom from segregation’ on the train” New York Times, 1/25/1948 (NAID 22123608)

During the early months of 1948, the Freedom Train concluded its southern swing and proceeded across the country.  And then back again, that fall to the East and the South, and the East again, before heading to Washington D.C., for Truman’s inauguration.  The tour officially ended in the nation’s capital on January 22, 1949.  In all, the Freedom Train during its 413-day tour was visited by 3.5 million people in 322 cities in all forty-eight states and in the process traveled some 37,000 miles.  Although the foundation desired to continue the tour, lack of funds prohibited them from doing so.  But the exhibit itself continued on, as the National Archives put the documents on exhibit in its building from September 1949 to January 1950.

With the tour completed the American Heritage Foundation turned its attention to a good citizenship program, primarily promoting voting and voter registration (records found in Correspondence Relating to the “Register & Vote” Campaign, NAID 22123599).  The Foundation ended in 1969.  It is impossible to assess the impact of the foundation on America during its existence, but its Freedom Train tour and promotion of Rededication Weeks and its media campaign during the tour certainly touched the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.

The foundation was greatly praised for its efforts.  Dwight Eisenhower wrote in February 1948, that “your success to date in instilling into the American people an increased consciousness of our manifold heritage has been one of the outstanding and most satisfying phenomena of the postwar period.”  Sumner Welles wrote “the work that has been carried on by the American Heritage Foundation has been of the utmost value to the people of this country and I feel that that part of the Foundation’s program represented by the Freedom Train has alone constituted a service that is inestimable in its beneficial effects.”

Besides reminding the American people of their heritage of freedom and their privileges of citizenship, the Freedom Train pointed out what many people considered shortcomings in American democracy.  “The Freedom Train’s tour is needed,” The St. Paul Dispatch stated on November 20, 1947, “even though some of its stops may bring shame and embarrassment to Americans respecting the principles it embodies.”  But “it might help wake the country up to a needed consciousness of our lamentable shortcomings.”  Emory O. Jackson in his The Birmingham World on December 26, 1947, captioned his editorial, “‘Iron Horse’ Put South on the Spot.”  Indeed, it had.  But to what degree?  This is impossible, of course, to measure, but most certainly many Southerners, who were already losing confidence in the beliefs that sustained their racial discrimination policies and practices, must have realized even more the contradictions between the Declaration of Independence and segregation.

“City’s Bigotry Doomed Freedom Train’s Appearance Here Dec. 29” Birmingham World, 12/26/1947 (NAID 7788666)

The American Heritage Foundation, like Thomas Jefferson, had not intended for the Declaration of Independence to be a starting point for a debate on the status of African Americans in America.  But this had been the result of the Freedom Train tour, especially in the South, just as the adoption of the Declaration of Independence had been in the North after 1776.  In both instances, 1776 and 1947, a contagion of liberty took place as a result of people seeing the contradictions between the principles of equality put forth in the Declaration of Independence and the reality of the status of African Americans in America.

The Freedom Train tour, by forcing integration in all but two cities and by calling the nation’s attention to the problem of segregation, had raised the hopes and expectations of many Americans that the South had the capacity to adjust to a new America, one where segregation was becoming less acceptable.  During 1947 and 1948, notwithstanding the problems facing them, many African Americans, believed America was headed in the right direction.  These years witnessed the Freedom Train opening new doors in the South; the publication and wide distribution of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights’ report, “To Secure These Rights;” civil rights planks in the Democratic and Republican Party platforms; Henry Wallace, Wayne Morse, the American for Democratic Action, and other individuals and organizations calling for action; and President Truman taking action, including integrating the Armed Forces.  By the end of 1948, for the first time since Reconstruction, civil rights and the place of African Americans in America occupied a central place on the national political stage.  But not all the attention was positive, nor were the hopes and expectations of 1947-1948 long lasting.

It is somewhat ironic that while the Freedom Train was pointing out the shortcomings of America, particularly with respect to segregation, it was also promoting the form of patriotism that resulted in McCarthyism; with the contagion of liberty came seeds of repression.  By late 1948, many African Americans and liberals were on the defensive as the finger of suspicion was being pointed at any group or organization that appeared to harbor disloyal beliefs or members. “By 1947,” according to Lerone Bennett, Jr., in Confrontation Black and White (1965), “the great rehearsal was over and men crept back sheepishly, to the exchange masks of rebellion for masks of acceptance under protest.  It was all over; but nothing was forgotten.  Seeds were stirring under the great white snow; and, in season, the flowers of rebellion would grow.”

Some of those seeds must have been planted by the Freedom Train.  Just as the American War for Independence was a result of the American Revolution, so was the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s a result, in part, of the debates of the 1940s, of which the debates surrounding the Freedom Train and segregation were a part.  Although some limited civil rights gains were made in the late 1940s (including breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball), perhaps more importantly, the debates of those years mentally and morally prepared many Americans for the changes that would come.  Undoubtedly, the Freedom Train tour must have influenced the thoughts of many Americans with respect to the “unAmericanism” of segregation.  This “contagion of liberty” then was an unintentional, but very important result of the Freedom Train tour.

Records used and cited above are from the following series:

  • Magazines, Photographs, and Progress Reports Relating to the Freedom Train (NAID 22123608), American Heritage Foundation, Records of the American Heritage Foundation (Collection AHF)
  • Records Relating to the First Freedom Train (NAID 22123618), American Heritage Foundation, Collection AHF
  • General Records Relating to the 1947-1949 Freedom Train Exhibitions (NAID 7788666), General Services Administration. National Archives and Records Service. The National Archives. Office of the Director of Archival Management. Exhibits and Publications Section, Records of the National Archives, RG 64

Dr. Bradsher has previously written about the Freedom Train on the Text Message blog.

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