LIMA — In the late 1940s, America was flush with victory in World War II, growing as a world power and on the doorstep of unprecedented prosperity. President Harry Truman and other national leaders felt the time was right for the country to pause, consider how it got to that point and rededicate itself to the principles that made it great.
Attorney General Tom Cox proposed a train that would travel to communities in each of the 48 states, bringing the “documents of liberty” to the people. The train-loving Truman, famous for his whistle-stop campaigning, loved the idea.
Lima loved the idea, too, and enthusiastically hopped on board the “Freedom Train.”
The Freedom Train’s 37,160-mile tour lasted from Sept. 17, 1947, to Jan. 22, 1949. It visited every state using 52 different railroads. More than 3.5 million people went aboard the train during its display stops in 326 cities and towns. At many sites, people waited in line more than six hours to go aboard.
The train was the temporary home to more than 120 of America’s most precious documents and other unique treasures, among them the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, one of the 13 original copies of the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Iwo Jima flag and the German and Japanese surrender documents that ended World War II. The cargo also included a precious original of the Magna Carta, written in the year 1215 as the first guarantee of the individual Rights of Englishmen that a king could not deny. The cargo was entrusted to 41 crew members, including 24 U.S. Marines.
Besides the Marines, the documents were guarded by the latest technology. In September 1947, a year before the train visited Lima, The Lima News reported the documents were “placed between two sheets of plastic anchored inside display cases,” which were “covered with shatterproof double glass sheets and are embedded into plate steel walls with uniquely designed security screws.” The train also was protected by a “special fire extinguisher,” the paper said.
Railway Age magazine in 1947 reported the train “is fully protected against almost every contingency except an air raid or total immersion.”
The train, with its three exhibit cars, three sleeper cars and equipment car, would pull into Lima Sept. 9, 1948, nearly a year after leaving Philadelphia. The visit was the culmination of a lot of local planning and would end a week of activities designed to, according to Willard Dudley, a member of the Lima committee planning the event, “give us all an opportunity to take a refresher course in Americanism — and we need it badly.” The week was dubbed Rededication Week.
Speaking to the Lima committee, Brendan Byrne, area director of the American Heritage Foundation, the national umbrella group for the Freedom Train and related activities, said the series of civic and patriotic events were meant as “a refresher course in citizenship.”
Byrne told the group the refresher course was necessary. “Twenty-five persons out of a hundred do not know the name of the national anthem,” Byrne told the Lima News on July 25, 1948. “Some of them think it is ‘God Bless America.’ Maybe some of them think it is ‘Nature Boy’” (a popular song performed by Nat King Cole in 1948).
In a letter to The Lima News in advance of Rededication Week, the Better Business Bureau, which sponsored the Freedom Train visit, noted, “Many of us are concerned about present day lawlessness, cynicism, violation of civil rights and subversive thinking of many Americans. There is a great need to inculcate the youth of America to a full appreciation of the heritage of which they will be the trustees of tomorrow.”
If a concrete example of that disregard for civil rights was needed, Birmingham, Ala., provided it. In keeping with its policies on race, the city attempted to schedule “separate but equal” visits for blacks and whites to the Freedom Train. The American Heritage Foundation canceled the train’s scheduled visit to Birmingham. Several other southern cities also had visits called off.
Black poet Langston Hughes in his 1947 poem “Freedom Train” describes the train’s journey through the segregated South. The poem, in part, says:
The Birmingham station’s marked COLORED and WHITE.
The white folks go left, the colored go right —
They even got a segregated lane.
Is that the way to get aboard the Freedom Train?
In Lima, there were no such misgivings. Ads from local businesses in The Lima News pushed the freedom theme during Rededication Week — “Let Us All Mobilize for Freedom,” “We Americans Must Rededicate Ourselves to Our Great Heritage of Freedom — Visit the Freedom Train,” “Don’t Be a Back Seat Citizen.” One popular ad said the most dangerous “ism” Americans had to fear was “Don’t Care-Ism.”
The highlight of Rededication week was a parade on the eve of the Freedom Train visit. The Lima News on Sept 3, 1948, said it would be “one of the largest in the city’s history” and included seven sections and numerous floats. The week also included a church day, a women’s day and a labor-management day. City and county schools also conducted Rededication Week activities.
At 4:10 a.m. Sept. 9, 1948, the Freedom Train arrived in Lima from Springfield. “America’s ‘shrine on wheels,’ the Freedom Train, rolled into Lima Thursday and area thousands came to worship and marvel at its precious cargo,” The Lima News wrote.
The seven-car, red, white and blue train, which was positioned on the “Pennsylvania and B&O interchange track, opposite the Pennsylvania Station,” opened to the public at 10 a.m. that day. By 10 p.m., when the exhibit closed and the train prepared to move on to Canton, 8,150 residents had viewed the displays, the News reported Sept. 10, 1948. At its peak, the line to visit the train stretched over three blocks.
“Most of them were weary when they finally entered the Freedom Train. Some waited in line for more than two hours. They didn’t regret it,” the News said. “There were several hundred who waited in vain. The Marines closed the gates at 10 p.m.”
A similar rolling exhibit, this one called the American Freedom Train, traveled to the 48 contiguous states for the Bicentennial celebration in 1975-76. The train, although pulled part way on its journey by a Lima-built steam locomotive, did not stop in the city. Area stops were made in Archbold, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Bellefontaine.