The Freedom Train, 1947-1949

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

Early in my career at the National Archives, my branch chief assigned me the task of describing the records of the American Heritage Foundation, part of the National Archives Gift Collection. This sounded boring, and somewhat was as I went through the boxes and files, until I reached the part of the records relating to the Freedom Train. Those files were very interesting indeed. The story they tell is the basis of this blog. 

On an early April day in 1946 William Coblenz, assistant director of the Department of Justice’s Public Information Division, decided to spend his lunch hour viewing the exhibits at the National Archives. One exhibit, German surrender documents and Hitler’s last will and testament, greatly impressed him. Believing it was unfortunate that most Americans would never get to the National Archives to see this exhibit, Coblenz went to see Solon J. Buck, Archivist of the United States, about the possibility of putting on a touring exhibit across the country. With Buck’s encouragement, Coblenz took the idea to his boss, Timothy A. McInery. What Coblenz proposed was an exhibit, to be called the Bill of Rights Exhibit, of contrasting documents from Nazi Germany and American history that would be exhibited first at the Department of Justice and then be sent across the country aboard a railroad car. Thus was born the idea that resulted in the Freedom Train and one of the, if not the, greatest patriotic campaigns in American history.

McInery not only endorsed the idea of the exhibit, but immediately suggested to the Attorney General, Tom Clark, that their department participate in an exhibit along the lines laid out by Coblenz. Clark liked the idea. In it, he told a congressional committee several years later, he saw the “means of aiding the country in its internal war against subversive elements and as an effort to improve citizenship by reawakening in our people their profound faith in the American historical heritage.” Once informed of the exhibit idea, President Harry Truman, on April 20, informed Clark that it had his “strongest endorsement.” “We have come to a moment in the history of the world,” he wrote Clark, “when such an exhibition has timeliness and great educational value.” “The plan to contrast, in this exhibit, the evolution of our liberties with the destruction of liberty by the Hitler tyranny in Germany, has much to commend it, for history in our time has demonstrated the triumph of the American way over the ways of despotism.” “All in all,” he concluded, “I hope…the…tour of this exhibit…will make it possible for every man, woman and child in America to enrich their pride in the institutions that have made us great.”

With presidential backing Clark, McInery, and Coblenz began planning the exhibition and its tour. They were greatly assisted in their planning by the National Archives staff, especially Elizabeth E. Hamer, chief of the Division of Exhibits and Publications, which by the first of May, was already recommending documents to be included in the exhibit. Throughout the summer Coblenz worked closely with Hamer and other staff members in planning the exhibit, and by the end of October the Archivist informed the Attorney General that his institution was prepared to loan documents and fully help with the exhibit.

But without sufficient funds to underwrite both the exhibit and tour it was feared the show would never leave Pennsylvania Avenue. So Clark, who placed the highest priority on the project, turned to his friends in the private sector for financial assistance. One friend, Barney Balaban, president of Paramount Pictures, suggested that he could obtain funds for the tour and that with a little organization additional funds could be obtained and a larger patriotic program undertaken. Following up on Balaban’s proposals, Clark, in November 1946, sent Coblenz to New York City to meet with Balaban, his assistant, Louis A. Novins, and several other movie executives. Agreeing that a large-scale educational-patriotic program could be undertaken under the auspices of the Department of Justice on a non-partisan basis and funded by the private sector, this group called for another meeting in December in the Attorney General’s office, where, with other movie and media leaders, they could formulate their plans.

Balaban, Novins, and their colleagues did not wait until December to begin making plans. They immediately set in motion a plan to organize and publicize the projected train tour, as well as local patriotic programs to be called “Weeks of Rededication.” The Advertising Council, led by Thomas D’Arcy Brophy, simultaneously was working on a similar program. Their plan called for an educational campaign patterned after some public service campaigns they conducted during the war. Their goal, much like Clark’s, was to “re-sell Americanism to Americans.” When Clark learned of the proposed campaign he invited the Advertising Council to join forces with him and to attend the December meeting.

On December 10, 1946, Clark met with forty leaders of the press, radio, and motion picture industries and with Archivist Solon J. Buck and the Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans. Among those in attendance were Philip L. Graham, publisher of the Washington Post; Spyros Skouras, president of 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation; Frank Stanton, president of CBS; Irving Berlin; Balaban; Novins; and Brophy. After explaining why a patriotic-educational program was needed, Clark stated that what he had in mind “is the dramatic projection of a single idea-something to capture the imagination of the American people-something which can be exploited intensively both nationally and locally.” His plan was simply to dramatize “the American way of life through the traveling exhibition of the most important collection of original American documents ever assembled.” This would be accompanied by an educational-patriotic media campaign produced by those organizations and corporations represented at this and subsequent meetings, under the sponsorship of the Department of Justice.

At a meeting held at Clark’s New York City office on January 7, 1947, it was decided that the exhibit would only include documents that affirmatively illustrated the development of liberty and freedom in America, for it was believed the American story could be told without using contrasting documents to emphasize its positive values. It was also decided that the exhibit, which would be underwritten by private funds, would not be carried on a railroad car attached to a regular passenger train, but would, instead, be self-contained, with its own special schedule and name, the “Liberty Train.”

It was at this point that Thomas D’Arcy Brophy called on Winthrop W. Aldrich, chairman of the Chase National Bank, to take an active part in the project, particularly with respect to fundraising. Aldrich, on January 27, held a luncheon meeting in New York City at which not only was more than $150,000 pledged by various organizations and corporations to support the project, but plans were laid to form an organization to formalize the decisions that were being made and to give direction to the project. The result was the American Heritage Foundation.  

This foundation-a non-partisan, non-profit, educational organization to be directed by private citizens and financed by the private sector-was incorporated on February 14, 1947. In May, officers were elected-Aldrich, chairman; Brophy, president; and Novins, executive vice-president-and the name of the train was changed to the “Freedom Train.” And to ensure that the message of the documents on the train would not be lost in the hoopla and ballyhoo of the tour, the foundation began making plans for a full week of organized meetings in each city visited, during which American heritage and good citizenship would be discussed and promoted. These were to be called “Rededication Weeks.”

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. The guest list read like a Who’s Who of American social, economic, financial, and media life. In  keeping with the non-partisan nature of the program, it was decided to exclude political figures. Among the 175 individuals present, were Henry Ford II, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., Irving Berlin, David O. Selznick, Frank Stanton, Spyros Skouras, Luther Evans, Solon J. Buck, Winthrop W. Aldrich, Barney Balaban, Thomas D’Arcy Brophy, Fred C. Heinz, Jack Kapp, Philip Murray, James H. Rand, Jr., Lester Granger, Walter White, Albert Warner, Charles E Wilson, William Green, Carter Barron, and Mrs. Robert P. Patterson.

Brophy told the conference that the Rededication Weeks would be the key part of their program, for “the success or failure of our effort will be measured not only by the miles the Freedom Train will travel…but by what happens in individual communities.” Nevertheless, the train would be the inspiration for the Rededication Weeks in local communities and would serve, as President Truman informed the conference, as the “dramatic reminder to our people of the American heritage which they enjoy.” At the conference it was announced that the Freedom Train tour would begin at Philadelphia on September 17, 1947, the 160th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Those in attendance were reminded that in the following four months they would have to begin their national media campaign, develop a comprehensive education program, collect and insure the documents, and put the train together.

Fortunately for the foundation, it had much assistance, especially from the Advertising Council, the motion picture industry and the print media who helped put together various educational-patriotic programs and from the nation’s railroad companies, who not only supplied the train, but also made arrangements for its tour. Also of great assistance were the foundation’s Documents Advisory Committee, which included among others, Solon J. Buck, Luther Evans, and Julian P. Boyd, which selected the documents for exhibit and the Documents Committee, consisting of John Foster Dulles and three others, which approved the selection.

The National Archives greatly assisted the project, as it was responsible for physically assembling the exhibit materials and for their preparation for exhibition. The key staff included Elizabeth Hamer and Arthur E. Kimberly, chief of the Cleaning and Rehabilitation Branch. National Archives staff members also recommended documents to be included in the exhibit. Altogether the National Archives provided about one-fourth of the exhibit’s 126 documents, including the Treaty of Paris, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Northwest Ordinance, and Washington’s copy of the Constitution.

Three women working on exhibit cases.
Left to Right: Elizabeth Hamer, Margaret (Peggy) Mangum, and Elizabeth Bukowsky encase bound volumes in Lucite containers aboard the Freedom Train. (NAID 12167218).

Also contributing documents were historical societies, universities, government agencies, private collectors, and the Library of Congress. Among the more notable documents contributed were Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact, the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner, Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the United Nations Charter, and the log of the U.S.S. Missouri detailing the Japanese surrender. Not everyone was pleased by the selection of the documents. Many groups were disappointed that certain documents, such as the Truman Doctrine; the Wagner Labor Act; Executive Order 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practice Commission; and the President’s Committee on Civil Rights Report, were not included. But, as the foundation responded to requests for the inclusion of such documents, it would not include documents that were the subject of current legislative consideration or were deemed to be of a partisan or controversial nature.

The Freedom Train tour and the foundation also had their critics. Some people charged that the Freedom Train was a product of “Wall Street Imperialism” and that Aldrich and his cronies were putting over a fast one for the Republicans. On the other hand, some members of the Republican-controlled Congress believed the tour was being undertaken on behalf of the Democratic Party. Many African Americans also questioned the wisdom of the tour, especially if segregation was allowed during the exhibitions. “For me,” Lester Granger, executive secretary of the National Urban League, wrote Brophy, “it would be a monumental travesty upon our democratic concept, if the Bill of Rights were to be exhibited to an American audience rigidly segregated according to race.” A column in the July 6 issue of the Sunday Bee, an African American Chicago newspaper, stated that the money spent on the Freedom Train could be better spent on making the Four Freedoms possible for all Americans. 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, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was “equally convinced 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 criticisms about the purpose and usefulness of the Freedom Train tour, on September 16, the Freedom Train -sleek and somewhat futuristic- rolled into Philadelphia, ready to begin its journey. The train was powered by a streamlined 2,000 horse-power diesel-electric locomotive named “The Sprit of 1776,” which had been christened a few weeks earlier with a bottle containing water from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mississippi and Potomac rivers. It was lent to the foundation by the American Locomotive Company. The rest of the train, which had been assembled in Cameron, Virginia, with the help of the Army and the National Archives, consisted of three Pullman cars on loan from the Pullman Company; one baggage car on loan from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway System; and three exhibit cars on loan from the Pennsylvania Railroad. The train, once assembled, was painted white with a red and blue stripe 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. The train staff, headed by Walter H. S. O’Brien, who had served as the executive officer of the railroad unit of the War Finance Division of the Treasury Department during World War II, consisted of a public relations officer, seven maintenance men and engineers, three porters, one document specialist from the National Archives, a Navy chief pharmacist’s mate, and twenty seven Marines commanded by Lt. Col. Robert F. Scott.

The day the train arrived in Philadelphia also marked the beginning of the foundation’s national media campaign. On that day, Irving Berlin’s song Freedom Train, which had already been recorded on Decca Records by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, was introduced on WNBC by Vic Damone. Radio and television stations and newspapers began carrying stories about the Freedom Train as well as foundation-sponsored or –produced material. Foundation publications and other patriotic and educational materials were made available to the public. “Our American Heritage,” the foundation’s major film feature, produced by Dore Schary through the facilities of RKO Pictures and narrated by Joseph Cotten, was shortly thereafter released to theaters across the country.

The next day, the Freedom Train opened to the public in Philadelphia. From there it proceeded to tour New York State, New York City, and New England. At each stop it was visited by large audiences eager to view its precious cargo, to take the Freedom 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. Protesters, primarily communists and conscientious objectors, were arrested in both cities. To ensure that these “critics” as well as others did not undermine the Freedom Train’s tour of the Northeast, the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept track of them. Between September 20 and October 24, J. Edgar Hoover sent the Attorney General nine reports on the protesters.

two men viewing document inside glass case.
Photograph of Freedom Train Exhibit. Dr. Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States (right) and GSA Administrator Jess Larson at the official preview of the Freedom Train exhibit at the National Archives. (NAID 74229019).

From New England the train headed for Washington, D.C., for the Thanksgiving holiday. It was preceded by a carefully programmed week of rededication that included a mass demonstration at which thousands of government employees took the Freedom Pledge:

I am an American. A free American.

Free to speak-without fear,

Free to worship God in my own way,

Free to stand for what I think right,

Free to oppose what I believe wrong,

Free to choose those who govern my country,

This heritage of Freedom I pledge to uphold

For myself and all mankind.

The Attorney General and the President on November 27 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 individual liberties, embodied in the documents on the train were what the country was presently fighting for.

On November 28, the train departed Washington, D.C., and headed south, with the foundation’s hopes 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. So that there would be no confrontations over the segregation issue, the foundation in September issued a press release announcing its July decision not to 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 it would have segregated lines or separate black-white times or days, the city was informed that it would be bypassed.

All the southern cities, except Memphis and Birmingham, 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 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 the segregation policy of their city officials and with the support of both major newspapers began a campaign to force a reconsideration of the cancellation decision. After a week’s debate on the subject, the Memphis Press-Scimitar on November 28 carried a front page story with the caption “Freedom Train Has Already Come to Memphis.” The head of one of Memphis’ veterans organizations felt that “the Freedom Train has actually come to Memphis already insofar as its ideals are concerned.” “Our city,” this individual was quoted, “has been stirred to a new interest in the documents and principles which made America great-and that was the purpose of the Freedom Train.” Other southerners and southern communities disclaimed Memphis’ stand on segregation. Many towns not on the itinerary offered to take its place, guaranteeing no segregation. The mayor of Laurel, Mississippi, even traveled to New York City to personally lobby the foundation to add his town to the tour. And the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, made the statement, “I am willing to stand beside any American citizen, regardless of race or creed, in mutual admiration and respect for those great historical charters of American freedom.”  Mayor Pleasants and Boss Crump of Memphis 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 the 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 the 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 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 progress in the fulfillment of the best spirit of the documents of the Freedom Train.” “We can only hope,” he informed one trustee, “that municipal officials [of other southern communities] will not make it necessary for us to withhold the inspiration of the exhibit from those who need it most.”

The Birmingham, Alabama, municipal officials, despite the Memphis cancellation, desired a form of segregation when the train was scheduled to visit their city on December 29, 1947. The commissioner of public safety, Theophilius Eugene “Bull” Connor, was adamant about this. The foundation’s attempt to persuade the Birmingham officials to fully integrate the exhibit in their city failed, and on December 24, the foundation cancelled the Birmingham stop. 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.” The New York Times on December 26, reported that the Freedom Train was “apparently doing an even better job of education than its sponsors had hoped….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 have been worth while.”

The Freedom Train visited forty-seven southern cities without any 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, Novins believed, represented a constructive achievement and established precedent throughout the South, which was all the more impressive, considering “almost all of these cities have segregation laws covering public gatherings.”

During the early months of 1948, the Freedom Train concluded its southern swing and proceeded across the southern portion of the country to California. Each city it visited, as in the Northeast and the South, held Rededication Weeks during which various activities were undertaken to renew the community’s faith in America and its institutions. During the week, each day was set aside to highlight a particular theme. Thus there were Freedom of Religion Days, Veterans Days, Women’s Days, Organizations Days, American Family Days, Youth Days, Freedom of Expression Days, and Good Citizenship Days. Both communities the train visited and others expressing an interest were supplied by the foundation with a variety of educational and patriotic materials to be used in their local programs. In these communities a multitude of educational and patriotic activities, including school programs, plant and civil rallies, parades, and religious services, were undertaken to increase public awareness of their heritage of freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship. On the community level 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.

Many corporations, organizations, and individuals assisted the foundation’s media campaign with materials, money, and time. Television stations, besides showing ”Our American Heritage,” covered Rededication Week activities, as did radio stations. The motion picture industry, working with the foundation’s Motion Picture Committee -of which Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, was a member- produced film features for the foundation and ensured that they received widespread distribution. This was especially true of “Our American Heritage,” which was shown in over 15,000 theaters and public schools which had been given prints of the film.

The print media also covered the tour and the Rededication Week activities. Approximately 250 national magazines and thousands of other publications carried features about the Freedom Train and the foundation’s programs. Even comic books got into the act, including one that featured Captain Marvel and the Freedom Train. Newspapers carried stories and printed special editions and sections on the Freedom Train and foundation activities. During the tour the foundation received from its clipping service over 440,000 clippings. The print media also contributed by drafting, funding, printing, and distributing publications for the foundation. Reader’s Digest, for example, reprinted 3.5 million copies of an article on the Bill of Rights that was given to train visitors. Look magazine prepared over 775,000 copies of an illustrated thirty-two-page booklet Our American Heritage, which provided information on the major Freedom Train documents. And the Advertising Council produced 1.5 million copies of a seventy-two-page booklet entitled Good Citizen. In addition, other organizations helped the foundation produce document display kits, Freedom Train prints and postcards, facsimiles of the Freedom Train documents, and a 160-page booklet entitled Heritage of Freedom, which reproduced and discussed the Freedom Train documents.

After visiting the Pacific Northwest during the early spring of 1948, the Freedom Train toured the Rocky Mountain region and then the upper Midwest during the late spring and summer. That fall it toured the East and South, and the East again, before heading to Washington, D.C., for Truman’s inauguration. The tour officially ended 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 it from doing so. Lack of funds also prevented the National Archives, which had been authorized by Congress to acquire and operate the Freedom Train, from continuing the tour. The National Archives did, however, put the Freedom Train documents on exhibit in their institution from September 1949 to January 1950 and issued a 10-page pamphlet to accompany the exhibit.

The American Heritage Foundation, with the tour completed, turned its attention to a good citizenship program, primarily promoting voting and voter registration. Lack of funds, the unfashionability of patriotism during the Vietnam War, and the inability to recruit younger people to carry on foundation work, all contributed to its demise 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 the Rededication Weeks and media campaign during the tour certainly touched the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. These activities generated a great deal of praise. James Forrestal wrote the foundation that it deserved the “nation’s gratitude for bringing these symbols of freedom to so many Americans.” “Your success to date,” Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote the foundation in February 1949, “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.” “In my opinion,” Sumner Wells 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.” Wayne Grover, who became Archivist of the United States during the train’s tour, observed “the message it took to the people was certainly worthwhile.” John McCormick told a congressional committee contemplating the continuation of the Freedom Train under National Archives sponsorship that he believed “that the tour of the train has instilled in Americans…an understanding of the great privileges that we enjoy.” Ten years later, Frank Monaghan, historical consultant to the foundation, wrote that the Freedom Train “did more to bring the basic documents of our American heritage to the enraptured attention of the American people than any other single operation,”  

Indeed, the Freedom Train did all the things noted above -all the things its creators desired- and more. As Walter White observed in a syndicated column, the Freedom Train had done more “to mark 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.”


A slightly longer, footnoted, and fully illustrated version of this post appeared as an article in the Winter 1985 issue of Prologue, under the title “Taking America’s Heritage to the People: The Freedom Train Story.” See also The Travels of the Bill of Rights, Emancipation Proclamation, and other National Archives Holdings on the Freedom Train, 1947-1949.

See: “Hitler’s Final Words,” Prologue, Spring 2015 for the background on how the Hitler documents mentioned at the top of the article came to the National Archives.


For related documents and images from the holdings of the National Archives, see:

RECORDS OF THE AMERICAN HERITAGE FOUNDATION, 1947 – 1968 (NAID 777)

Magazines, Photographs, and Progress Reports Relating to the Freedom Train, 1947 – 1949 (NAID 22123608). Collection: RECORDS OF THE AMERICAN HERITAGE FOUNDATION, 1947 – 1968.  Official Freedom Train Postcard, 1948

General Records Relating to the 1947-1949 Freedom Train Exhibitions, 1945 – 1953 (NAID 7788666), Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration:  Integrated crowd stands before Defenders of Freedom exhibit, nd; Telegram from “Bull” Connor to the American Heritage Foundation, 12/24/1947; Telegram from Thomas D’Arcy Brophy, President, American Heritage Foundation, 12/24/1947.

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