HARRISBURG, Pa .– Pennsylvania had been installing historical markers for more than a century when racist violence in Charlottesville, Va. In August 2017 sparked a new round of questions from the public about the stories being told by the roadsides state – and the language used to tell them.
The increased scrutiny helped prompt a review of the 2,500 markers by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a process that focused on factual errors, inadequate historical context, and racist or otherwise inappropriate references.
So far, the state has removed two markers, revised two, and commissioned new text for two more.
Across the country, historical markers in places became another front in the national calculation of slavery, segregation and racial violence which also brought down Civil War statues and changed or reconsidered names institutions, routes and geographic features.
The idea that “who is honored, what is remembered, what is commemorated tells the story of a society that cannot be reflected in any other way” is at the origin of an effort by the ‘Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, which installed dozens of markers, mostly in the South, to remember racial terror lynchings.
Historical markers educate the public and therefore can help fight systemic racism, said Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s largest custodians. black history literature and related materials.
“Being able to tell everyone’s story is good for society as a whole. It’s not to be taken away from anyone else, ”Turner said. “Let’s have these stories, because the more truth we have, the better.”
At the request of Bryn Mawr College President Kimberly Wright Cassidy, the Pennsylvania History Agency removed a marker from the edge of the campus indicating that President Woodrow Wilson had briefly taught there. Cassidy’s letter to the commission cited Wilson’s dismissive comments about the intellectual capacities of women and his racist policy of federal labor segregation.
The commission ordered the modification of a marker in the suburb of Philadelphia, birthplace of Continental Army Major General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, because he called him an “Indian fighter”. He is also developing a replacement for a marker that was removed from the grounds of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, on the site of a 19th century prison, which noted Confederate cavalry were held there after their capture in Ohio. during the civil war.
The state government removed a marker in Pittsburgh’s Point State Park indicating the location where British General John Forbes achieved a military victory in 1758, which, according to the marker, “established Anglo-supremacy. Saxon in the United States ”.
The commission also revised markers in Fulton County, central Pennsylvania, related to the movement of Confederate Army troops after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and to a Confederate cavalry raid in 1864 on Chambersburg which resulted in left much of the city in smoldering ruins.
A marker had previously described the last Confederates to camp on Pennsylvania soil – the state has since added terms of their defeat to Union troops. The other marker, roughly two Confederates killed in a skirmish, has been revised with details of their raid and how New York Union soldiers killed them and took 32 prisoners.
The changes generated some political resistance, especially from a representative of the Republican state, a member of the Historical Commission and Museums, who wrote in October about his objections to the initiative.
“My fear is that the commission will become less of a true historical arbiter and more of a miniaturized version of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth that forces government agents to alter the story to fit the convenient narrative of officials,” wrote State Representative Parke Wentling. .
In a report to the commission, a contractor said that an elected Fulton County commissioner harassed his team when they removed the old markers last year.
And this month Steve Miskin, a senior State House Republican press official, responded to an account on the Fulton County markers with a tweet asking, “Is Pennsylvania considering removing” The Confederation ”of textbooks? Censorship TV shows and movies that mention “Confederation? “
Disputes over how historic markers should be labeled – or whether they should exist at all – have divided communities in other states in recent years, including Memphis, Tennessee; Sherman, Texas; and Colfax, Louisiana.
In Pennsylvania, the commission reviewed all 2,500 markers it controls with a focus on how the lives and histories of African Americans and Native Americans are portrayed and adopted a new policy on how markers are established. About a year ago, he identified 131 existing markers that might require modification, including a subgroup of 18 that needed immediate attention.
“The language could be sexist, it could be racist, it could be all of those different things,” said Jacqueline Wiggins, retired Philadelphia educator on the State Historical Commission Marker Review Panel. “There is work to be done.
Newly approved markers increasingly tell the stories of previously under-represented people and groups.
The commission provides financial support to markers if their topics relate to women, Hispanics, Latinos, and Asian Americans, or if they relate to black and LGBTQ history outside of Philadelphia. Financial support is also provided to under-represented regions. Last year, the agency subsidized markers on petroglyphs in Clarion County, a camp where Muhammed Ali trained in Schuylkill County and the site of a boycott that ended an effort to school segregation in County Chester.
New markers approved in March include the first significant Chinese immigrant workforce in the state at a cutlery factory, the co-founder of one of the country’s first black fraternities, and three Ephrata women who are among the first. documented composers of the country.
Native American-related markers generally define Indigenous peoples based on the Europeans who moved them, such as a Juniana County marker on “a palisade built circa 1755 to protect settlers from Indian marauders.”
“There’s a lot of tap dancing about who started which battle or skirmish,” said historian Ira Beckerman, who recently conducted a study focused on Pennsylvania markers related to black and Native American history. “If the settlers started it, it was a battle and therefore worthy. If the Native Americans responded in the same way, it was massacre, savagery, etc.
Beckerman concluded that overall, the state’s 348 Native American historical markers “tell a fairly accurate and compelling story of racism and white nationalism.”