Putting history into the right perspective
Across the country there has been a realization that it may be time to take another look at historical markers — those little signs we see dotting the landscape with a paragraph or two explaining the significance of a place.
One such review occurred in Pennsylvania, where questions after what took place in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 led to a consideration of the state’s 2,500 markers.
Pennsylvania’s Historical and Museum Commission looked for factual errors, inadequate historical context and racist or otherwise inappropriate references, according to a report by the Associated Press. So far two markers have been removed, two have been revised and new text has been ordered for two others.
Good. It’s time we were honest about whether the history to which some of us cling is reflective of the whole story.
“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,” said Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Let’s have these stories, because the more truth we have, the better it is.”
Those who authored the markers put in place over the last century or so knew the power of words. To give two examples, the commission ordered changes to a marker at the Philadelphia birthplace of Continental Army Maj. Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, which referred to him as an “Indian fighter,” and it removed a marker in Pittsburgh’s Point State Park at the location where British Gen. John Forbes had a 1758 military victory and “established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States.”
On the other hand, the review gave Pennsylvania officials the chance to tell the state’s story in richer, more accurate detail.
Efforts in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are important, and should inspire each of us to conduct our own review as we read historic markers.
Take note of the language used and how the author intended you to feel about the event, person or place being highlighted. Be thoughtful.
History is not something to be erased. It is something to be examined in full, honest detail. Taking a look at how we tell that story is an important step.