For 18 months in the late 1940s, some of the nation’s most important historical documents toured the country in a traveling museum called the Freedom Train.
The National Archives History Office has produced a new online exhibit on the Freedom Train, which is available in the Google Cultural Institute.
Viewed by more than 3.5 million Americans, the Freedom Train stopped in cities in each of the 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states at this time).
The Freedom Train was intended to increase awareness of the need to preserve important documents as well as to allow Americans throughout the country to see these documents.
The American Heritage Foundation was created to design, protect, and operate the train and its contents.
A committee containing members from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and other government agencies planned and designed the exhibit.
A group of 27 Marines was hand selected to protect the Freedom Train on its tour, and a coalition of railroad companies ensured that the Freedom Train would travel across America as efficiently as possible.
The documents on board the Freedom Train came from many different sources. Most were already in the holdings of either the National Archives or the Library of Congress, but some documents were lent to the exhibit from private museums and personal collections across the country.
After the 133 documents on the Freedom Train were selected and their exhibits installed, the tour began. The train rolled from September 1947 until January 1949, with few breaks.
True to its name, the Freedom Train mandated that the admission lines for the exhibit were to be desegregated. Memphis, Tennessee, rejected this condition; in response, the Freedom Train did not stop there as scheduled.
Admission to the Freedom Train was free, but the American Heritage Foundation suggested donations and requested that all visitors sign the Freedom Pledge.
After a successful national tour, the Freedom Train arrived in Washington, DC, for President Truman’s Inauguration Week. At the end of the week, the scrolls of 3.5 million names signed under the Freedom Pledge were donated to the Library of Congress.
The American Heritage Foundation then dismantled the Freedom Train, donating the document cases to the National Archives and returning the documents on loan from other collections.
One year later, the National Archives opened an exhibit about the Freedom Train in its exhibition hall. Many of the original documents were displayed once again, allowing them to be seen by those who were unable to view the Freedom Train and those who wanted to see the documents again.
To learn more about the Freedom Train, visit the new Freedom Train exhibit on Google Cultural Institute.
To see more historical photos of the Freedom Train visit our Flickr page.