Which of the following seminal documents in American history have been exhibited and seen by thousands of people in Bloomington: An original Thomas Jefferson draft of the Declaration of Independence; Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript of “The Star Spangled Banner” from 1814; the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s own hand; or the original copy of Nazi Germany’s May 7, 1945 unconditional surrender?
The answer is all the above. These four documents and more than 100 others of comparable significance were publicly displayed in Bloomington, though for only one day — July 14, 1948.
The occasion was the arrival of the Freedom Train, a project born of the Cold War and the emerging global confrontation and competition with the Soviet Union. Organizers sought to restate and reaffirm the principles for which the U.S. fought World War II. “Rededication” was the program’s watchword, and “freedom is everybody’s job” the slogan. It was, quite simply, “a campaign to sell America to Americans.”
The Freedom Train and its exhibit cars stopped in more than 300 cities in all 48 states (it would be another eleven years until Alaska and Hawaii reached statehood) over the course of 14 months, September 1947 to October 1948. Visitors to the train were also asked to the sign the “Freedom Pledge” vowing to uphold the “nation’s heritage of freedom”— free speech, free worship and free and open elections.
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The train was organized under the auspices of the American Heritage Foundation, a public-private partnership with prominent figures from government, media, academia and arts and entertainment. There was no admission fee to see the Freedom Train exhibits, though local committees organized at each stop were expected to raise funds to defray costs.
Most Americans rallied around this celebration of all things red, white and blue. “From where I sit, we’re all riding along with that Freedom Train —right now — by living in a country that protects our individual liberties —whether they apply to our right to vote, to choose our church, to speak our minds, or enjoy a glass of beer with friends,” declared syndicated columnist Joe Marsh in early 1948. There was even the Irving Berlin ballad “Freedom Train” sung by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters.
Of course, this being 1948, millions of African-Americans were denied the right to vote and were unable to enjoy other basic civil and political rights. Imagining the Freedom Train traveling through the segregated American South, poet Langston Hughes composed an angry response, a stanza of which reads:
Who’s the engineer on the Freedom Train?
Can a coal-black man drive the Freedom Train?
Or am I still a porter on the Freedom Train?
Is there ballot boxes on the Freedom Train?
When it stops in Mississippi, will it be made plain
Everybody’s got a right to board the Freedom Train?
The train’s pending arrival to Bloomington sparked similar questions from local residents. H.L. Buck, a Bloomingtonian with Native American heritage, decried the continued privations faced by many “100 percent Americans,” and said his inability to land a decent job in town was due to his skin color. “Why not a freedom train for America’s starving red man?” he asked in early December 1947. And on the day of the train’s arrival in Bloomington, The Pantagraph published a letter from William Teske, who noted “deep-seated racial and religious prejudices that still remain.”
In Bloomington, African-Americans faced pernicious de facto segregation when it came to public accommodations, housing and economic opportunity. At this time, local or visiting Blacks could not eat in downtown restaurants or stay at downtown hotels, and graduates from Illinois State Normal University were not able to teach in local schools.
To their credit, Freedom Train’s national organizers insisted that visitors not be segregated by race. This demand left Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., two cities unwilling to soften local Jim Crow laws and customs, off the list of scheduled stops.
The train, pulled by a diesel-electric engine dubbed “The Spirit of 1776,” arrived in Bloomington on July 14, 1948, sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., traveling on the Nickel Plate Road from Peoria, its last stopover. In Bloomington the train switched to Illinois Central tracks and then backed up to a siding between Taylor and Grove streets (behind what’s today the vending services company Canteen on Robinson Street — the IC right of way through Bloomington-Normal is now the main leg of Constitution Trail.)
A detachment of 27 U.S. Marines provided security for the priceless and irreplaceable collection of documents. In Bloomington the Marines were backed by National Guardsmen from Bloomington’s 396th Antiaircraft Battalion. City cops also patrolled the area on motorcycles, and plainclothes sheriff’s deputies, state troopers and railroad agents mingled with the crowd to keep a closer eye on things.
When the Freedom Train locked its doors at 10 p.m., some 9,200 people had passed through its exhibit cars during the preceding 12 hours. Afternoon rains kept the figure below the daily target of 10,000 visitors, as those on the train were reluctant to leave and get wet, which caused the orderly procession to slow down a spell. An estimated 500 to 600 people were still in line at closing, and though they never got inside the train they were allowed to walk up and sign the freedom pledge.
The Freedom Train then left early Thursday morning for Kankakee and another 12-hour day and 10,000 visitors. After Kankakee, there were successive stops in Champaign, Decatur and Springfield.
There was a second freedom train, this one timed to the American Bicentennial. In July 1975 it stopped in Peoria and Springfield but never made it to Bloomington-Normal.
Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.