A look back at the Freedom Train’s time in Montclair (History and Heritage)
By MARISA SHAARI
For Montclair Local
On Thursday, Oct. 21, 1948, the Freedom Train rolled through Montclair on its cross-country tour to promote the history of American democracy during the postwar period.
The slogan of the seven-car train, which was sponsored by the American Heritage Foundation, was “Freedom Is Everybody’s Job.” The train contained a mobile exhibition of important documents in American history and offered Americans the opportunity to see these historical treasures.
The photograph of the train from the Montclair Public Library’s local history collection is in black and white, but the train was painted white with red and blue stripes, and on each car there was an eagle painted in gold.
The Freedom Train stopped at the Montclair Heights station on Normal Avenue in Upper Montclair and was on display from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. that day. Montclair’s mayor at the time, Howard N. Deyo, officially designated the week Rededication Week and proclaimed “... a week of rededication to American ideals and principles for Montclair … and I do hereby extend to the Freedom Train the warmest welcome of Montclair.”
Documents on display included the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, a letter written by Christopher Columbus, the Mayflower compact and documents related to the German and Japanese surrenders from World War II.
A total of 133 items of Americana were displayed, 127 documents and six flags. Most were on loan from the National Archives, but others came from the Library of Congress, other museums and private collections.
According to an article published at the time, “extraordinary measures have been taken to safeguard the nation’s most precious papers.” The train is described as being of all-metal construction, with the most up-to-date fire prevention systems.
The historical documents themselves had to be protected from physical damage by fire, theft, water and even sudden changes in temperature, which can have a disastrous effect on paper artifacts. Custom-built display cases were used to display the documents, and temperature and humidity were strictly regulated.
The first three cars of the train housed the exhibit, and the other four provided space for the staff on tour with the train. There were 37 people aboard, including 24 enlisted men and three officers of the Marine Corps who protected the train and its contents at all times.
With the help of major railroad companies all over the country, the Freedom Train traveled to more than 300 cities in all 48 contiguous states, covering 23,000 miles from September 1947 to January 1949.
Over the course of its tour, more than 3.5 million Americans viewed the documents on the train. The Freedom Train exhibit was integrated, allowing black and white viewers to mingle freely inside to view the documents on display.
As the train traveled South, segregation caused significant controversy. Town officials in Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, refused to allow integration on the train. As a result, the Freedom Train skipped planned visits to these two cities.
A second Freedom Train exhibition toured the country in 1975-76 to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial. This train was visited by more than 7 million Americans but bypassed Montclair on its tour, stopping in Morristown, Newark, New Brunswick, Trenton, Asbury Park and Atlantic City.
To see more historic photographs of Montclair, visit Montclair History Online at digifind-it.com/montclair/home.php. In partnership with the Montclair History Center, the library offers more than 13,000 digitized photographs, maps, city directories, deed books and more to the public.
To use other archival resources available for research, contact the library to make an appointment to use the local history room, email@example.com, or call 973-744-0500, ext. 2235.
Marisa Shaari is the local history librarian at the Montclair Public Library.
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library.