Racial reckoning turns focus to roadside historical markers
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania had been installing historical markers for more than a century when the racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 brought a fresh round of questions from the public about just whose stories were being told on the state's roadsides — and the language used to tell them.
The increased scrutiny helped prompt a review of all 2,500 markers by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a process that has focused on factual errors, inadequate historical context, and racist or otherwise inappropriate references.
So far, the state has removed two markers, revised two and ordered new text for two others.
Across the country, historical markers have in some places become another front in the national reckoning over slavery, segregation and racial violence that has also brought down Civil War statues and changed or reconsidered the names of institutions, roads and geographical features.
The idea that "who is honored, what is remembered, what is memorialized tells a story about a society that can't be reflected in other ways" is behind an effort by the Birmingham, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative that has 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 country's largest repositories of Black history literature and related material.
"By being able to tell everybody's story, it's good for the society as a whole. It's not to take away from anybody else," Turner said. "Let's have these stories, because the more truth we have, the better it is."
At the request of Bryn Mawr College's president, Kimberly Wright Cassidy, the Pennsylvania history agency removed a marker from the edge of campus that noted President Woodrow Wilson had briefly taught there. Cassidy's letter to the commission cited Wilson's dismissive comments about the intellectual capabilities of women and his racist policy of federal workforce segregation.
The commission has ordered changes to a marker at the suburban Philadelphia birthplace of Continental Army Maj. Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne because it referred to him as an "Indian fighter." It also is developing a replacement to a marker that has been removed from the grounds of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, on the site of a 19th-century prison, that noted Confederate cavalry were held there after their capture in Ohio during the Civil War.
State government took down a marker in Pittsburgh's Point State Park that noted the location where British Gen. John Forbes had a 1758 military victory that the marker claimed "established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States."
The commission also revised markers in central Pennsylvania's Fulton County related to the movement of Confederate Army troops after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and related to an 1864 Confederate cavalry raid on Chambersburg that left much of the town a smoldering ruin.
One marker had previously described the last Confederates to camp on Pennsylvania soil — the state has since added language about their defeat by Union troops. The other marker, about two Confederates killed in a skirmish, was revised with detail about their raid and how Union soldiers from New York killed them and took 32 prisoners.
The changes have generated some political pushback, including from a Republican state representative, an appointee on the Historical and Museum Commission, who wrote in October about his objections to the initiative.
"My fear is that the commission is becoming less of a true historical arbiter and more of a miniaturized version of George Orwell's Ministry of Truth that has government officers alter history to fit the convenient narrative of those in charge," state Rep. Parke Wentling wrote.
In a report to the commission, a contractor recounted that an elected Fulton County commissioner harassed his team when they removed the old markers last year.
And this month, a senior state House Republican press aide, Steve Miskin, responded to a news account about the Fulton County markers with a tweet asking, "Is Pennsylvania planning to remove 'The Confederacy' from textbooks? Censor TV shows and movies mentioning 'The Confederacy?'"
Disputes about how historical markers should be worded — or whether they should exist at all — have divided communities in other states in recent years, including in Memphis, Tennessee; Sherman, Texas; and Colfax, Louisiana.
In Pennsylvania, the commission examined all of the 2,500 markers it controls with a focus on how African American and Native American lives and stories are portrayed and adopted a new policy on how markers are established. About a year ago it identified 131 existing markers that may require changes, including a subgroup of 18 that required immediate attention.
"The language could be sexist, it could be racist, it could be all those different things," said Jacqueline Wiggins, a retired educator from Philadelphia on the state historical commission's Marker Review Panel. "There's work to be done."
New markers getting approved are increasingly telling the stories of previously underrepresented people and groups.
The commission is offering financial support for the markers if their subjects concern women, Hispanics, Latinos and Asian Americans, or if they are about Black and LGBTQ history outside Philadelphia. 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 stopped a school segregation effort in Chester County.
New markers approved in March include the first substantial workforce of Chinese immigrants in the state at a cutlery factory, the cofounder of one of the country's first Black fraternities, and three Ephrata women who are among the nation's first documented female composers.
Native American-related markers generally frame the Indigenous people in terms of the Europeans who displaced them, such as a Juniana County marker about "a stockade built about 1755 to protect settlers from Indian marauder."
"There is a lot of tap-dancing over who initiated which battle or skirmish," said historian Ira Beckerman, who recently produced a study focused on Pennsylvania markers that relate to Black and Native American history. "If the settlers started it, it was a battle and therefore worthy. If the Native Americans responded in kind, it was a massacre, savagery, etc."
Beckerman concluded that as a whole, the state's 348 Native American historical markers "tell a pretty accurate and compelling story of racism and white nationalism."