Photograph of Freedom Train, 1950.
National Archives
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Remembering the Freedom Train

In an effort to awaken Americans to their own history, the Truman Administration conceived of a moving museum.
Harry Truman was a proud son of the Confederacy, keenly aware of his own family’s partisanship in the Civil War. But he had grown in the office, and the rising tide of violence against African-Americans had sickened him. On October 29, 1947, his Administration had issued “To Secure These Rights,” a report that cited the same historic documents that the train was carrying, to argue that the United States had defaulted on its promise to African-Americans. The fusillade received a mixed response in the South, where leaders awaited the Freedom Train with mounting dread. A different kind of Freedom Ride had recently taken place, in April, when the Congress of Racial Equality had organized a “Journey of Reconciliation,” by bus, bringing together black and white citizens opposed to Jim Crow. Now, as the Freedom Train approached, each Southern city had to deal with a core question: should visitors be allowed to enter the train together, or segregated into white and black categories?

Many cities alternated groups of black and white visitors without calling attention to the fact. But two cities went out of their way to insist publicly on two different lines forming. In Birmingham, the commissioner of public safety, Theophilus Eugene (Bull) Connor, was already known for his unreconstructed views. Memphis was also a problem, dominated by an old political machine led by E. H. (Boss) Crump and a mayor, James Pleasants, who argued that “jostling” in the line was a form of unhealthy contact between the races. A Memphis newspaper summed up the situation with a headline that no satirist could have improved upon: “Memphis Officials Fear Freedom Train Will Inspire Citizens.”

Faced with the prospect of segregated lines to see the Emancipation Proclamation, the American Heritage Foundation announced that the train would bypass Birmingham and Memphis.
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