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Pennsylvania’s Historical Marker Program: A Holistic Review of Native American and African American-themed Markers

On October 23, 1925, Chief Strong Wolf participated in the dedication of the Indian Walk marker in Bucks County .  The Fourth Report of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission noted, “Indian Chief Strong Wolf came to many of the ceremonies in his native costume and spoke, adding much of picturesque interest to the meetings.”

Synopsis

The Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program has been part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC) for over 100 years.  In that time over 2,500 Historical Markers have been erected.

Historical Markers are placed and erected to tell a story, and to provide a teaching resource for the communities where they reside.  A total of 348 markers labeled as Native American have been erected since 1914, the vast majority prior to 1950.  Taken holistically, not individually, they tell an organized narrative of settler colonialism through warfare, treaty, removal, and nostalgia for the defeated tribes.  The vocabulary of these markers are necessarily patriotic, “American,” progressive, and often racist.  As with confederate statues, objectivity might be beside the point.

For the 235 historical markers identified with African Americans, many deal with the themes of slavery and abolition, with a sizeable percentage not about African Americans at all, but what today we would call their white allies, specifically abolitionists.  For the first 35 years of the Historical Marker Program, African Americans were completely absent.  As a group, African American Historical Markers are Philadelphia-centric and narrowly focused on preachers, teachers, and entertainers.

The PHMC has recently undertaken some new policies with regard to the legacy of Pennsylvania’s historical markers and its accumulated schmutz.  For that they are to be commended.  However, it does not seem nearly enough.  An incremental approach may be practical, politically acceptable, and yield some results.  If the Historical Marker Program is to retain legitimacy, and to serve its mission to commemorate and educate on the history of Pennsylvania, then a more intense approach is needed.  It will need to be comprehensive, require substantial resources, and may become as controversial as other recent attempts at restorative justice.  To do less, though,  leaves us with a history continuing to perpetuate an incomplete and distorted narrative of the Commonwealth.

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