On February 23, 1948, a train pulled into Los Angeles carrying 127 of the most significant documents in American history. Dubbed the Freedom Train, the traveling museum made a four-day stop at Exposition Park as part of a nationwide tour. Thousands of Angelenos flocked to the specially designed railway cars and often waited hours to get up close to the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Emancipation Proclamation and other documents. Bruins were among the crowd, thanks in part to the encouragement of University of California President Robert G. Sproul, a vice chairman of the American Heritage Foundation, which oversaw the cross-country event.
“The visit of the Freedom Train to California,” Sproul said, “provides a great opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the principles of democratic, representative government which created our American heritage.”
To commemorate this historic experience, UCLA planned “Rededication Week” activities, including a library exhibit of reproductions of notable American documents, a showing of the film Land of Liberty and a concert of patriotic songs by the UCLA band. The Daily Bruin noted that the train’s sponsors hoped the week would have the “nature of a ‘revival meeting’ for American democracy.”
By the end of its 16-month tour, in Washington, D.C., in January 1949, the Freedom Train had welcomed aboard more than 3.5 million visitors in 300-plus communities across all 48 states. But countless Angelenos had been turned away because of over-capacity crowds. UCLA Librarian Lawrence Clark Powell took notice and proposed to Philadelphia brothers Philip and A.S.W. Rosenbach — collectors of rare books and manuscripts, some of which had traveled on the Freedom Train — that the campus host a similar exhibit.
“This is still the frontier out here,” Powell explained. “We don’t have the early American relics that can be seen in the East — and people are hungry for these things.”
Through Powell’s persuasiveness and the Rosenbachs’ generosity, the Great American Historical Documents, Manuscripts and Books exhibition opened in what is now Powell Library on February 23, 1949, exactly one year after the Freedom Train’s arrival in Los Angeles. Powell hoped the three-week event would attract local residents who had missed the Freedom Train, especially schoolchildren.
“Because these documents are records of history as it was being made, we hope many young people will see them,” Powell said.
During the first few hours of the exhibition, more than 500 students poured in to view dozens of priceless pieces of American history, including George Washington’s hand-drawn map of his Mount Vernon property, Paul Revere’s commission as official messenger, surgeon Charles Taft’s account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the First Constitution of the State of California. One sponsor called it “the greatest exhibition of its kind ever loaned to a university library.”
Provost Clarence A. Dykstra said of the historical documents: “They represent in graphic form the ideals of democracy for which this university and this nation stand.”