The Freedom Train

Authored by Candyce Valor

Taken during the Freedom Train Tour October 19, 1948, this photo illustrates anticipation to explore the traveling archival exhibit visiting their small community in Red Bank, NJ. The Freedom Train traveled from September 1947 to January 22, 1949 through many cities in 48 states to provide all people in the community the chance to view historical documents and artifacts.

The journey of the Freedom Train Tour started in Philadelphia on September 17, 1947, on the 160th signing anniversary of the United States Constitution. The seven-car train traveled thirty-seven thousand miles utilizing 52 different railroads with Presidential priority across the United States (Wines, n.d.). The initial tour consisted of 326 city stops (Wines, n.d.). The goal of the Freedom Train Tour was to bring historical documents to those not able to visit the National Archive in Washington DC. The funding for the Freedom Train could not be generated from Congress. The American Heritage Foundation was founded to garner financial and infrastructure support of the Freedom Tour (Wines, n.d.).

Archivists sifted through historical documents, and in total 133 items were selected for display (Wines, n.d.). The documents were on loan from the National Archives, museums, Library of Congress and private collections (Robb, n.d.). The collection consisted of originals or official copies and was displayed in chronological order. Certain topic areas such as women’s suffrage, collective bargaining, and desegregation were rejected due to sensitivity (Widmer 2017).

More than 3.5 million visitors had the ability to walk through the Freedom Train. The attendees were people of every race, age, and economic standing. The American Heritage Foundation issued a clear statement that segregation was not permitted and any city that would mandate a white and black separation within the train would be omitted from the tour (Little 1993).

Birmingham Alabama and Memphis Tennessee were scheduled tour stops. They were omitted from the tour as they were reluctant to follow the guidelines from the American Heritage Foundation (Widmer 2017). Walter White, a civil rights activist who led the NAACP, stated that the decision to withdraw Birmingham, putting the Bill of Rights above the local segregation laws, was the greatest Christmas gift to democracy (White 1999, 135).

The country was facing social unrest during the time of the Freedom Train Tour (Hawkes 2019). Additionally, the topic selections of artifacts were limited due to sensitivity. There is no doubt that the Freedom Train Tour enabled and protected the right of any person’s ability to view these historical documents with this epic journey. When researching the timeline of history during this event, there are a few social justice issues that should be faced when one reflects on the significance of The Freedom Train Tour.

References

Freedom Train Tour. October 19, 1948. (Photograph). Box 1, Folder 1, Community Photos, Freedom Train Tour, Robert Goode Collection of the Red Bank Public Library, Red Bank, New Jersey.

Hawkes, Julie. September 18, 2019. “An Antiracist Approach to Researching and Writing History.” https://activisthistory.com/2019/09/18/an-antiracist-approach-to-researching-and-writing-history/.

Little, Stuart J. 1993. “The Freedom Train: Citizenship and Postwar Political Culture 1946-1949.” American Studies 34, no. 1 (Spring): 35–67.

Robb, Delmar F. n.d. “The Freedom Train.” Accessed September 24, 2020. https://www.freedomtrain.org/freedom-train-story-12-del-robb-memoir.htm.

White, John. 1999. “Civil Rights in Conflict: The “Birmingham Plan” and the Freedom Train 1947.” Alabama Review 52 no. 2, (April): 121-141.

Widmer, Ted. 2017. “Remembering the Freedom Train.” The New Yorker, November 26, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/remembering-the-freedom-train.

Wines, Larry. n.d. “The 1947 – 1949 Freedom Train Giving Wheels to the Dream.” Accessed September 27, 2020. https://www.freedomtrain.org/freedom-train-story-03-giving-wheels-to-the-dream.htm.

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