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.”
The Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program has been part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and its prior iteration, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC), for over 100 years. In that time over 2,500 Historical Markers have been erected, with two periods of intense activity, one after the PHC’s founding in 1913, and the second after WWII, when the audience for these pivoted to the motorist driving Pennsylvania’s roads.
In recent years, there has been a growing understanding that objects such as monuments and statues are mirrors of the times in which they were erected and that many were placed for reasons other than the objective presentation of history, e.g. confederate statues. In place after place, a thoughtful review of these objects, their context and purpose, has resulted in reinterpretation, removal, or both. Historical Markers are not exempt from this scrutiny. In fact, their ubiquitousness compels us to holistically make the same kind of review.
This article considers the very different trajectories for Native American Markers and African American Markers. To scholars today, neither trajectory is flattering for the telling of Native American and African American stories, nor for the Commonwealth’s historical leadership that oversaw the program back then. For the 348 historical markers identified with Native Americans, most were erected before 1950. Of these, the vast majority reflect a narrative of settler colonialism through warfare, treaty, removal, and nostalgia for the defeated tribes. Almost none celebrate the actual Native Americans who were here on the land prior to William Penn. The vocabulary of these markers are necessarily patriotic, “American,” progressive, and often racist. 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. The first African American individual celebrated with a marker was not until 1961, for James Bland, celebrated (ironically) as a minstrel song composer. Since then, the PHMC has moved in fits and starts to try to correct this imbalance with very mixed results. This article does not cover other (mostly absent) stories, especially that of women, who although constitute 50% of the population, merit 6% of the markers.
The PHMC has recently undertaken some new policies with regard to the legacy of Pennsylvania’s historical markers. 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 proactive 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.
Why Historical Markers, Why Now?
The last several years has been a time of reflection into our Nation’s History and in particular how we have expressed that history through monuments. As a measure of growth in our collective intellectual curiosity, we have moved from reading the inscriptions at the monument base and trying to figure out who was General So and So to deeper questions of why General So and So has a monument here and why it was erected in the year it was. In a way, this shift is making historians of us all. When reading these monuments as text, as artifact, sometimes we come away confused and disturbed. This has been especially true with the group of monuments erected 50-100 years after the Civil War, glorifying the ones that rebelled, not the ones who won, and certainly not the ones who defended the principles that have been enshrined in our Constitution as the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
Historical Markers are and are not monuments. Monuments are grand; they draw attention to themselves. Markers are small, easily passed by. Monuments become the centers of their own spaces. Markers are something you drive by, or in the case of city markers, something you walk by. Additionally, it is rare to see a monument to a tragic event or some scoundrel. Markers seem to be more likely to take the bad in with the good. Yet both monuments and markers are placed. They don’t just happen. Both monuments and markers tell a story, a history. And both monuments and markers are susceptible to the thinking of the time during which they were erected. Most importantly, who tells the story determines what we as consumers of history see and read and absorb, be it monument, statue, or marker.
In 2017, the PHMC Marker Staff initiated a process to review its collection of 2,500 markers, in response to events in Charlottesville. In September, 2020 the PHMC adopted a new marker policy and in December, 2020 issued a preliminary text evaluation report. Both are available on the PHMC web’s site. Some of the new policy is procedural and administrative, but there are a few important points that may represent a departure from previous practice:
- The subject of the proposed marker has to have statewide and/or national significance. This appears to be a departure from previous conditions where markers could be locally important.
- The review of proposed markers will be handled through an appointed panel, assisted by PHMC staff and guided by a Commissioner. The Commission will approve all new markers.
- A process for revising and retiring markers is set out, also involving the panel, PHMC staff, and the Commission.
- Finally, and possible most important, any resident of the Commonwealth can request the review of an existing marker for revision or retirement.
In the December, 2020 report, 131 existing markers were flagged as possibly needing change, divided into High, Medium, and Low Priorities. The 18 High Priority markers contain wording that many might find outdated, insensitive and objectionable. Medium Priority markers were flagged for ambiguous cultural references or lack of historical context. Low Priority markers may be factually inaccurate, and/or lack historical context.
Given the century-long history of the historical marker program, it is worth examining the accumulated detritus of historical thought and words that are seeded across the Commonwealth, both in time and space. My suspicion was that a close review of the entire population of 2,500 markers might, like a review of state monuments, reveal something discomforting and disturbing.
The focus of this analysis is limited to markers referenced by two keyword phrases: Native American, and African American. During this analysis, the term African American is used instead of Black to describe an American of African and especially of Black African descent (Merriam Webster). This is in keeping with the terminology used in the Historic Marker Program and does not imply any specific social or political agenda. Other descriptors, such as Black, will be used when the specific citation uses that term. Likewise, the term Native American is used to describe the peoples that were here in North America, prior to the arrival of European settlers.
A Brief and Truncated History of the Historical Markers Program
It is important to set a context for this review and analysis, which will require a dive into the origins of the historical markers program, its original intent, and some key moments in its history that set the course for what we have today. This history does not attempt to be comprehensive, nor does it attempt to duplicate or correct George Beyer’s 1996 article nor Robinson and Galle’s centennial review.
In the original 1913 enabling legislation for the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Section 4 charges the Commission with,
upon its own initiative or upon the petition of municipalities or historical societies, mark by proper monuments, tablets or markers, places or buildings, within this Commonwealth, where historical events have transpired, and may arrange for the care and maintenance of such markers or monuments. (p.4)
In the First Report of the Historical Commission of Pennsylvania, the Commission emphatically made the case for the importance of Pennsylvania history in American history.
Cut out of American history what these events stand for, and the part played in them by Pennsylvania, and one loses the real plot of the entire drama of American history. Pennsylvania historians have been too modest… to give just credit to the tremendous moral force which the State and its people have exercised in the development of the American Nation. We must call attention to the facts in our history. We must make known these facts by monuments and markers, as well as by books and essays. (p. 14-15) (my emphasis)
The role of markers is made clearer in the Second Report of the PHC.
The plan of the Commission, from the very outset of its work, has been to arouse the interest of the people in the section in which the monument was to be placed by having them take part in the work from the time of the application for the monument until its final dedication. This plan has been carried out in almost every instance. In many places the pupils in the public schools have been asked to write essays concerning the history of the region in which the monument was erected. In many of the services of dedication the pupils of the public schools have taken part. In every instance the exercises have been given much attention by the local newspapers. The educational value of these activities of the local committees cannot be overestimated. Attention was called, in the first report, to the lack of knowledge of local history on the part of the people living at the very site of historic events. In several of the places in which the Commission has erected markers, citizens have stated that they did not know they were living near such a place as that which was marked. It can be said with certainty that the people living at the places where markers have been placed know more about the history of their own community than they did before the marker was suggested. (p. 14-15)
From the outset, historical markers have been tied with teaching of history and connecting with the public. At the founding of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, historical markers were integral to their mission. By 1932, they had erected some 122 markers. Of the 2,508 markers erected between 1914 and 2019, interest in erecting markers has waxed and waned (Figure 1).
The Great Depression put a halt on the erection of historical markers, with only 5 more erected until after WWII. Despite the drying up of funding, the importance of historical markers remained central to the Historical Commission’s mission, relying on local historical societies and the Daughters of the American Revolution to provide points of interest deserving “the attention of posterity.”
Prior to WWII, the mode of marker was undergoing a significant re-evaluation. Several states, including neighboring West Virginia, New Jersey, and New York, had programs with metal roadside markers on posts, instead of the bronze markers embedded in large stones as was the tradition in Pennsylvania. Besides recommending close cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, on whose largess the PHC would rely for the costs of erection and maintenance, recommendations were made to work closely with other WPA agencies to conduct a systematic survey of all existing historical markers, whether privately or publicly erected, and a survey of historically significant sites and buildings that would be good candidates for a future marker program. With regard to the subjects of proposed markers, there was a recognition of a bias toward Indian, colonial, and Revolutionary sites. Full attention needed to be given to outstanding events and landmarks in the social and economic development of the Commonwealth, including sites, birthplaces, and homes of outstanding Pennsylvanians. With regard to who determined which markers were to be erected, it was recommended that the State Historian work with professional historians and authorities on local history, forming permanent regional committees. Finally, it was recommended that funding for this program should come from the Commission, even if requiring a special appropriation.
Shortly after the reorganization of the Historical Commission into the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in June, 1945, S.K. Stevens, under the Role of Executive Secretary of the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies, put out a call to Pennsylvania Historians to nominate historical sites for the newly established roadside marker program. The newly constituted PHMC put historical markers back front and center to its mission.
You might suggest the Golden Age of Historical Markers had arrived. With the support of then Governor Martin, by February 1946, the PHMC was able to contract for 500 historical roadside makers. Within a brief 4-year period, some 803 markers were erected, more than 1/3 of the current total. After a nod to economic tourism as a rationale for the placing of statewide historical markers, State Historian S. K. Stevens emphasizes the two real reasons for a historical marker program. The historical markers
will be a lesson in Pennsylvania and American history for both natives of the State and those who visit the Commonwealth. Each marker will tell part of the story of Pennsylvania’s past, and of the magnificent contributions it has made to building America. Each marker will recall to mind some great personality, an important incident in frontier expansion, the role that a city or town has played in history, a pioneer achievement in industrial enterprise, or something of the history of roads, canals, and railroads.
However, beyond educating the public, the markers served a more vital role, that of nation building. Having just completed a world war on which the American way of life hung in the balance, promoting the idea of America seemed to be on everyone’s minds.
They will not only see the markers in ordinary travel, but also will be better able to organize pilgrimages to historical shrines. The same will be true of historical and patriotic societies, and civic clubs and organizations. More Americans and more Pennsylvanians are going to become mindful of the heritage of Penn’s land and of the heroic enterprise and achievement associated with the building of a great State and the nation of which it is a part. From this standpoint, the markers will help to build a stronger Americanism and to establish a deeper faith in our historical institutions.
It is this third and final reason for a historical marker program that comes to be the legacy of many of the historical markers now standing.
This level of activity was not continued into the 1950’s, and numbers per year tailed off, until 1956, when no markers were erected (Figure 1). Slowly, and then more deliberately, the marker program regrew, reaching around 35 markers a year between 1999 and 2010. Since 2010, the numbers have again declined.
Native American History as Reflected in Historical Markers
In the First Commission Report, a special section is reserved for the History of the Indian in Pennsylvania. To this point, “In fact it may be stated that not a single state in the entire Nation has a more interesting, important and truly romantic Indian history than has Pennsylvania. And yet, there are few monuments or markers, relating to this period, in the entire state.” (p.15)
The Section closes with the following:
It (the Commission) recommends that the first direct legislative grant or appropriation be made for the erection of a proper monument at the scene of Bouquet’s notable achievement in defeating the Indians at Bushy Run in 1763.
That thrilling incident and heroic adventure is typical… it signalized the clash of warriors of two races, as Parkman graphically says, matched the steady valor of civilization against the fierceness and intrepidity of the red savage…We recommend, therefore, that the General Assembly make provision for the erection on this blood-stained spot, of a fit memorial to mark the conquest of the Indian on Pennsylvania soil. (p.16)
Within Pennsylvania history, the history of the relations between European settlers and Native Americans can be summarized as one of settler colonialism. Without going into an extensive historical or political review, the definition by Nancy Shoemaker is useful:
Colonialism is a foreign intrusion or domination…Settler colonialism is where large numbers of settlers claim land and become the majority. Employing a “logic of elimination,” as Patrick Wolfe put it in the American Historical Review, they attempt to engineer the disappearance of the original inhabitants everywhere except in nostalgia.
The colonization of Pennsylvania was completed in about 100 years, between Penn’s Charter (1681) and the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784). Within that broad sweep, you can break the relationship between settlers and Native Americans into different phases and methods of interaction:
Contact and Trade
Warfare, to include raids and battles
With respect to historical markers, you can add the concepts of elimination and nostalgia with the following categories:
Appropriation and erasure
Out of the 2,508 historical markers erected between 1914 and 2019, 348 are categorized as Native American. If the language above in the First Commission Report is not clear enough, the closer scrutiny of the subjects of these markers and the time when they were erected provides some insights into what the Commonwealth really thought about the previous occupants of what we now call Pennsylvania.
One of the first things to observe is the high percentage of Native American Markers during this first phase of growth, under the PHC. Given the objectives laid out in 1915 with the First Commission Report, it is not hard to see how Native Americans would be central to the telling of the Pennsylvania story. However, even during the post-WWII marker boom, the percentage of Native American markers stayed high, resulting in over 20% of the 800 markers erected (Figure 2, 3). After this second phase, interest in Native American markers drops off dramatically.
To take a finer look at the broad sweep of settler colonialism, Native American markers are subdivided into the following themes. Individual markers could have multiple themes:
- Contact and Trade – commemorating events that signified early contact between settlers and “Native Americans,” and the subsequent trade that ensued.
- Missionizing – It wasn’t just the Jesuits that came to North America to make Christians out of the Native American populace. Moravians, especially, sought to Christianize “Native Americans,” with the express goals of not only saving souls, but bringing civilization.
- Treaties – throughout this history, the number one goal was to “legally” take land. Treaties that ceded land were the gold standard. Other treaties that created a temporary peace were OK, but only temporarily until the land could be taken.
- Land – in some respects treaties could be considered a subset of Land. Given the fixation of settler colonialism to have legal title to land on which they lived, treaties are divided from land, even though the distinctions might not have been too great. In some respects, the narrative could have been divided between Land and Theft, given that the majority of treaties were fraud in a Hobbesian sense (see below).
- Warfare, to include raids and battles – When treaties didn’t work, and missionizing didn’t subdue the resident population, then force became important. Going through the texts of the Native American Markers as a group, there is a lot of tap-dancing over who initiated which battle or skirmish. 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. (We are reminded of the Declaration of Independence and the last “Fact” of King George’s tyranny: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”) With the wisdom and benefit of a hundred years distance from the original PHC sentiments and 300 years from frontier Pennsylvania, we can see this dynamic as unrestricted warfare between settlers and “Native Americans.” On the Frontier, Thomas Hobbes, not Carl von Clausewitz, is the clearer observer:
“During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.”
“To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.”
- Removal – Settler colonialism can be reduced to: Take, remove, settle, repeat. Markers commemorate the movement of a Native American village out of the immediate area; these markers are the essence of settler colonialism.
- Resettlement – the mirror image of removal. Many Native American villages were removed and resettled in Pennsylvania, sometimes on their own, sometimes under the aegis of Moravian missionaries (see above). The result is the same. Native Americans are now rebuilding their lives in a new place not their own. At some point, they are resettled out of Pennsylvania.
- Appropriation and erasure – Allegheny County, Tunkhannock, Pymatuning, Kinzua. Should we continue?
- Nostalgia – These Indians weren’t such bad folks, now that we don’t have to deal with them. See The Great Island text: “Many Indian nations have occupied the Great Island in the river just south of here. Trails led from the Genesee, Ohio, Potomac, and Susquehanna North Branch. Delawares and Shawnees stopped here for a time on their migration west.” Let’s just not clarify here why the Delawares and Shawnees were passing through.
- Indian Trails – yet another form of nostalgia, but these are so common, they warrant their own sub-category.
Looking at the sub-divisions in the settler colonialism story, Warfare is by far the most common marker theme, followed by the Nostalgia grouping that includes Trail (Table 1). Removal and Mission are next, with Treaty and Resettlement following. At the beginning in the 1910’s, it’s mostly about warfare but the sub-group selections becomes more nuanced in the following decades. In the most recent decades, Warfare is not the subject of most of the markers.
The Native American category is being used as defined by the PHMC; however, this is inadequate to fully categorize the history of Native Americans. If we accept the premise that the role of historical markers is to educate and inform, as well as commemorate, just what is the message with regard to Native Americans? For the original Commissioners, William Sproul, W. H. Stevenson, George Donehoo, Hampton L. Carson, and W. U. Hensel, would it be anything other than putting up fit memorials to mark the conquest of the Indian on Pennsylvania soil? If this is the message, then we are commemorating the conquerors, not the conquered. Native Americans are not the agents in this story, but the objects of this story, not the subject but the object.
The most obvious examples are during the “French and Indian” and Revolutionary Wars. This marker is categorized as Native American:
The Surgarloaf Massacre, erected in Luzerne County in 1933:
Near this spot occurred the Sugarloaf Massacre on Sept. 11, 1780. A detachment of Captain John Van Etten’s company Northampton County Militia, resting at the spring, was surprised by a band of Indians and Tories led by the Seneca Chief Roland Montour. Those who perished were – Captain Daniel Klader, Corporal Samuel Bond, Jacob Arndt, Peter Groom, Philip George, Abraham Klader, John Kouts, James McGraw, Paul Neely, George Peter Renhart, Jacob Row, George Shillhamer, Abraham Smith, Baltzer Snyder, John Weaver.
Holding the language and slant aside, it is clear that Native Americans were the actors in this historical event.
However, this marker is also classified as Native American:
Brady’s Bend, erected in Clarion County in 1946:
Named for Capt. Samuel Brady (1756-1795), famed frontier scout and the subject of many legends. Near here in June 1779 — in what was then Seneca territory — he led a force seeking to redress the killing of a settler and her four children, and the taking of two children as prisoners. The force surrounded a party of seven Indians — apparently both Seneca and Munsee — killing their leader (a Munsee warrior) and freeing the two children.
Here the Native Americans are not the actors, but the recipients/objects of Brady’s force.
Finally, consider this marker, classified as Native American:
Fort Chambers, erected in Franklin County in 1947:
Erected in 1756 by Col. Benjamin Chambers, pioneer land-owner and founder of the town, who fortified his house and mill with stockade and cannon against Indians.
Here, the Native Americans are not only not the actors, but not present, except as an existential threat.
When you break Native American markers into subject or object groupings, Native Americans are actors in only 141 of the 348 markers (40%). Many of these are either in retaliation during war or in moving and removing their villages as a consequence of war and treaty. From the perspective of the settler colonial narrative, this is as it should be. To the degree that Native American-themed Historic Markers are the nostalgia portion of the narrative, one should expect during the fighting, treaty making, and removal, the Native Americans would be on the receiving end. In the nostalgia sub-group, they would be the subjects.
Looking at the subdivisions in the settler colonial narrative, subject versus object by decade (Table 2), you pretty much see where the Native Americans are actors and where they are not. After the 1950’s, when the number of new Native American markers is greatly diminished, you do see a small uptick in subject counts, especially where archaeological sites are recognized. But then again, from a marker point of view isn’t an archaeological site also nostalgic to a degree?
One visual way to compare the Native Americans as actors and subjects and Native Americans as recipients and objects is through word clouds. Word clouds for this analysis were created by accumulating all of the marker text in all of the markers in a particular category or grouping. When you look at the Native American subject word cloud (Figure 4) (using the online MonkeyLearn Word Cloud generator), phrases like Indian Path, Indian Town, Indian village come to the fore, as do the Delaware and Leni Lenape. Further down are the land agents of change – William Penn and Conrad Weiser (Table 3). Relevance is measured, using TF-IDF, a statistical measure that evaluates how relevant a word is to a document in a collection of documents. This is done by multiplying two metrics: how many times a word appears in a document, and the inverse document frequency of the word across a set of documents.
As object (Tables 4, 5), you can see the reinforced narrative of warfare.
In the Native American object word cloud (Figure 5), settlers, Indian Raid, Indian War, and Indian Attack are clearly relevant. The 20 erected markers for the Sullivan Expedition in 1929 – the sesquicentennial – do represent an anomaly on the word cloud. What is not an anomaly though is the emphasis at that time in the conquest of Native Americans in 1779 as part of a national story, not just Pennsylvania’s. Again, making the distinction between Native Americans as objects of settler colonialism and as subjects of nostalgia in that story, the word cloud shows more clearly than the tables, what is going on with the selection of marker subjects between 1913 and 1950.
On October 25, 1924, Chief Strong Wolf participated in the dedication of the Francis Pastorius, the founder of Germantown (Figure 6). The next year, he is at the dedication of the Famous Indian Walk Luncheon Place marker in Bucks County (Figure 7).
Throughout the 1920’s, Chief Strong Wolf regularly attended marker dedications. Who was Chief Strong Wolf? What can be gleaned from the records is that he was an Ojibwa Chief living in Philadelphia at that time. (This may explain the Plains headdress.) He was a WWI veteran and one of the leaders of the American Indian Association. Henry Shoemaker references that Chief Strong Wolf had taken a post-graduate course at U Penn. However, regardless of the man’s biography, for Henry Shoemaker, Chief Strong Wolf did “underscore the Indian connection” with early Pennsylvania History (p.43).
In the late 1920’s, the PHC also contracted with a Delaware Native American, Chief War Eagle, for marker dedications. The going rate was $15 per event, plus expenses. Chief War Eagle, whose English name was James Webber, developed a working relationship with Frank Speck of the University of Pennsylvania, and was likely the source for information on the Delaware as well as a collection of objects. For the PHC, Chief War Eagle provided a degree of authenticity at historical marker dedications, although his presence was requested for both the John Brady marker in Sunbury as well as the Lime Hill Battlefield Marker in Bradford County, both Revolutionary War-era conflicts between Native Americans and Settler Colonists.
Using actual Native Americans for historic marker dedications is a powerful teaching tool for settler colonialism that transcends both object and subject divisions, especially when added to a soup that contains Boy Scouts, the DAR, and the power of the State, as represented through the PHC.
African American History as Reflected in Historical Markers
African Americans are central to the discussion of Pennsylvania History, from contributions to arts and culture to the fact that African Americans built this country. If the state historical markers are to tell the facts of Pennsylvania history, then these markers must also talk of the African American experience.
Of the 2,500 Historical Markers in the Commonwealth, 235 are categorized as African American in the index, or about 9% of the total. As a rough representation of population, this seems about right. The 1990 census of Pennsylvania identified 9.2% of its population as Black. Before the Civil War, the African American population reached a peak of 2.9%, falling to a low of 2% after the Civil War and before 1900. After 1900, it has steadily increased. As a side note, the ratio of Freed Black to Enslaved was 2:1 in 1790, falling to almost exclusively Freed Black thereafter.
A cursory examination of the group of Historical Markers categorized as African American does show a bifurcation that may have some utility in the analysis. While some of the markers in the category are clearly about African Americans, other markers are African American adjacent. In 1947, a marker categorized under African American was dedicated to David Wilmont. The text reads,
“The great Free-Soiler, who began the fight on slavery extension with the Wilmot Proviso in 1846, lived in this house. Republican Party founder; its first candidate for Governor. He died here in 1868.”
You might argue David Wilmont was an early ally, and an important figure in the fight to prevent the expansion of slavery. Yes, the subject of that fight was abolition but the object of that fight was African Americans. Thaddeus Stevens, noted abolitionist, also has a marker. But the question is what is the subject of the marker? Is it African Americans, or non-African Americans supporting abolition or the underground railway, or, in the case of Alan Freed’s marker, which is also categorized as African American, in support of rock and roll, derived from Black Rhythm and Blues?
When we categorize a marker as African American, are we doing this where the African American is the agent, the actor, the subject in the history, or as we see here, also the recipient, the object of the history, and potentially tangential to the history? Another example: in 2005, a marker was dedicated to the Lombard Street Riot. The text states
“Here on August 1, 1842 an angry mob of whites attacked a parade celebrating Jamaican Emancipation Day. A riot ensued. African Americans were beaten and their homes looted. The rioting lasted for 3 days. A local church & abolition meeting place were destroyed by fire.”
Are we commemorating and remembering African Americans, or white violence toward African Americans? Does the category “African Americans” adequately capture what this marker is trying to say? Many markers have multiple categories, but for this marker, African American is it. One could argue the terminology for categorizing markers needs to be revised substantially. (This is particularly poignant when considering Native American markers.) If markers are commemorating the history of racial violence, shouldn’t they be identified as such? Remembering this event of violence is important, and to teach it as such is important. It is worthy of a marker. However, classifying it as “African American” really flattens the story. The categories do need to be reconsidered and revised.
In the analysis of African American-categorized markers, markers are divded between history where African Americans are agents, and hence the subject of the marker, and history where African Americans are either tangential to the story or only participating in the structure of the event. Take the Underground Railroad. In 1980, a marker was erected to Richard Henderson in Meadville. The text reads
“Born a slave in Maryland in 1801, he escaped as a boy and about 1824 came to Meadville. A barber, he was long active in the Underground Railroad. His Arch Street house, since torn down, is estimated to have harbored some 500 runaway slaves prior to the Civil War.”
Here an African American is the subject of the marker and an agent of this history. In 2002, a marker was erected in Indiana, PA for the Rescue of Anthony Hollingsworth. The text reads
“On June 26, 1845, this 12 year-old fugitive slave was captured by slave hunters. Armed residents surrounded the hotel where he was held & demanded his release, defying federal law. Judge Thomas White freed him in the old courthouse on this site.”
Is Anthony Hollingsworth the subject and agent of this event, or is it the white armed residents who are commemorated here? OK, there is no history without Hollingsworth, but even the name of the marker, “The Rescue of Anthony Hollingsworth,” gives it away. Rescue is the subject. Hollingsworth is the object. Like the Lombard Street Riot, the category language is too limiting.
In all, 55 of the 235 were regrouped as African American Object. 45 of these 55 were in Underground Railroad (n=23), Religion (n=19), and Government (n=17) (some are cross-categorized). Taking all of the marker text for the African American sub-group Subject yielded the word cloud below (Figure 8):
The generator also produced a listing of terms by degree of relevance (Table 6):
Compare this world cloud to the word cloud generated by only considering the markers under African American Object (Figure 9, Table 7):
The most relevant word phrases (Table 8) for the larger African American Subject sub-group are, in order: underground railroad, first African American, civil war, hall of fame, and civil rights leader. For the African American Object sub-group, the most relevant word phrases are, in order: underground railroad, freedom seeker, rock and roll, abolition of slavery, and John Brown.
Digging further down, in the next 5 for the subject sub-group, you see: African American Community; Eastern Colored League; African American Women; US Colored Troops; and, AME Zion Church. Conversely, for the object sub-group, you see: Fugitive Slave Act; Curtin of Pennsylvania; Longwood Progressive Meeting; opponent of slavery, and underground railroad activities. The marker messaging does seem different between the two groups.
It’s no coincidence that the timing on these markers between sub-groups is telling (Table 9, Figures 10 and 11). First of all, there is exactly one marker in the African American category before WWII, the Whitefield House. 126 markers preceded it. George Whitefield intended to build an orphanage for negro children, but that work was never done as the 5,000 acre property was acquired by the Moravian Brethren. Long story short, good intentions and no results.
The early decades of African American markers are predominantly in the object sub-group. By the 1960’s this changes and most of the remaining African American markers are of African Americans as agents in history.
In 1976, the PHMC recognized that there may have been a problem with African-American historical markers (among other issues in the telling of African-American history). At the November 29th meeting, the Committee asked that the PHMC be informed that a general evaluation of the marker program’s inclusion of Blacks was necessary. They formed an advisory committee on Black History in Pennsylvania, which met for the first time September 16th. In 1980, and again in 1982, the Committee reiterated its desire for more markers for Black history. Indeed, prior to 1982, the Commission(s) had erected not 9% of its markers for African American history, which would be representative of the demographic, but 9, where African Americans were the actors in the story.
Friction continued between the Committee and the PHMC. Regarding the 1984 dedication of a marker in Chester for Martin Luther King, Jr., Committee member Shirley Turpin-Parham noted that:
There was some controversy over the text of the marker. She stated the word “protest” was later excised. She thought that it should have been kept in the text. She mentioned that the marker at Germantown commemorating the first anti-slavery protest used the word protest. She believed this contrast unfortunately left the impression that whites could and did protest, but that Blacks could not and did not.
In 1990, three of the Committee members, Charles L. Blockson, Stan Arnold, and Shirley Turpin-Parham, secured a grant from the William Penn Foundation, which financed the placement of over 60 markers in Philadelphia between 1990 and 1993.  While this was an immeasurable gain in the visible presence of African American history, it was concentrated in Philadelphia, a point noted at the September 28, 1990 Committee meeting.
This entire discussion over the last section is not to denigrate the contributions to Pennsylvania History of people like George Whitefield, or a David Wilmont or a Thaddeus Stevens, or even Alan Freed. However, if we are a trying to represent a history of the African American experience in Pennsylvania, it may be appropriate to distinguish between events and people and places that have African Americans as the actor, the agent, versus those markers honoring those that today we might refer to as allies, or accomplices. The categorization of the current listing of African Americans (and other categories as well) needs a rethinking and reworking.
African American Representation by Categories
In general, the markers are categorized by different historical themes (Table 10). The three most common Categories are: Government and Politics, Military, and Business and Industry. African American Markers in those categories are 5, 3, and 2 percent respectively.
Markers are also categorized by finer-grained themes, such as Professions and Vocations, Entrepreneur, Invention, etc. If you examine African American representation within these various categories, there is a pattern. Some of this is intuitive, some less so. For example, within the category of Civil Rights, African Americans as subjects are 60% of the entries (see Table 11). You have Sadie T. M. Alexander, who was appointed in 1946 to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. You have Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington. Good trouble, right? C. Delores Tucker spearheaded the Commission on the Status of Women and championed the PA Equal Rights Amendment.
Other Categories well-represented by African Americans include Music & Theatre and Performers, Education, Sports and Recreation, and Religion. The Music and Performers category included notable African Americans such as Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday, and James Bland and August Wilson. It also includes the Dunbar and Freedom Theatres and the National Negro Opera Company. With the exception of James Bland, who was recognized in 1961 for minstrel songs, all in the group were recognized within the last 30 years.
The abundance of markers in the Religion Category reflects the importance of the Black Church in African American Life. Most of these are not for theological reasons, but the multi-dimensional nature of the Black Church, including Education, Civil Rights, Women, and the Underground Railroad. The large presence of African Americans in these categories of preachers, teachers, and performers may reflect a represented history of African Americans where they could safely operate.
Another way to look at the Categories is to see which are most popular and in a history sense, most valued (Figure 12). The table is a bit unwieldy, so some of the categories are removed. The American Revolution, Early Settlement, and Exploration are really too early to incorporate African Americans properly. Native American and Ethnic categories are, by their nature, ethnic and not relevant to African Americans. The African American Category is by definition related to the topic. Finally, there is a sector of markers related to place and not people. Cities and Towns, Forts, Roads, Canals, Navigation, Houses and Homesteads, Paths and Trails, and Bridges can all be removed as not relevant to the discussion.
If you cycle through the most common categories, the only ones with substantial African American representation are Government and Politics, and Religion. These are areas where African Americans have excelled, largely because these are the areas where historically African Americans have been given space. African American Women have 21% of the Women Category. Is this a measure of how dominant African American Women have been in society, or perhaps is it a measure of how few women actually have markers – 50% of the population (and that has been true for several hundred years), but only 143 markers – less than 6% of the total.
If you look at categories such as Invention and Entrepreneur, which have 86 and 38 markers respectively, you find only 2 African Americans each. William Chester Ruth invented the baler feeder in 1928. Joseph Winters invented the fire escape ladder. Under Entrepreneur, there is the Standard Theatre, which was opened by John T. Gibson, who operated it in Philadelphia, and again our Joseph Winters.
We can agree that both Winters’ and Ruth’s inventions are worthy. Many of the remaining non-African American entries in the Category are also quite worthy, including Christian B. Anfinsen for ribonuclease (getting him an Nobel in 1972), or ENIAC in 1946 (the first practical computer), or Philo Farnsworth, one of the inventors of television. However, the Category has four individuals with multiple entries, none African American – George Westinghouse, Sig Lubin, Christopher Sholes, and David Meade. In addition, markers recognize the invention of such items as the Slinky, the split bamboo fishing rod, the first animal shelter, and the banana split. You might argue that an invention is an invention, but if these inventions had been created by African Americans, you would not have seen markers for them, nor would you have seen multiple markers for the same invention. What we are seeing here is white privilege more than technological advancements in civilization.
In December, 2020, the PHMC Marker staff made recommendations for 131 markers, of High, Medium, and Low Priorities, for potential revisions. Much of the concern seemed to be over the use of specific terms that may be offensive in today’s context, words such as “squaw, Indian marauder, Tory-Indian Frontier Menace, etc. Two of the 18 High Priority Markers were flagged externally by host institutions. The PHMC’s proposals, including the new policy, are useful but modest.
With regard to the 348 Historical Markers categorized as Native American, there is sufficient evidence to take much more forceful action. The vast majority of markers in the category were erected over 70 years ago, and true to the original mission of the PHC, glorify the conquest of “that savage race by civilized peoples.” This group of 348 markers, statewide, should be considered within the whole cloth of settler colonialism. The texts of these markers, taken all together, lack historic context, lack modern interpretation, and lack balance. Interpreted together as artifacts of their time, they tell a pretty accurate and compelling story of racism and white nationalism. Unfortunately, the “let me tell you what this marker actually means” companion sign is missing from each, which means that taken straight as teaching of history, these markers have the potential to do much more harm than good.
Incrementalism may eventually correct the biases and problematic markers noted above. However, at the current pace, it may take decades to fully address what is before us. The historic marker program still has the potential to fulfill its original mission of being an effective and popular tool for teaching history. However, the history that is being shared at the moment does a great disservice. In many ways, the status of this set of markers is equivalent to the status of confederate statues that were placed as a result of the Jim Crow and Lost Cause efforts in the early 20thCentury. Leaving them up is challenging and hurtful. Removing all of them erases not only the history of Pennsylvania, but hides the settler colonial history as well.
One approach, suggested by the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, would be to gather the worst of the group, the telling of the massacres and forts and conquests, into a marker garden at a state historical site and develop an interpretive exhibit around settler colonialism. The remainder of the markers would get a systematic and holistic review. Some, like the 20 markers of the Sullivan Expedition of 1779 could be reduced in number. Some, like the Walking Purchase, would be reworded to express the land theft it represented.
Ultimately, it is not my role here to prescribe solutions to this problem. That being said, there are reasonable and productive pathways to get to a solution. The model for this is Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which puts consultation to the center of decisionmaking. The PHMC should convene all of the descendant tribes to advise the PHMC as how to proceed. At last count, there are 16 Federally recognized tribes that were in Pennsylvania. They all have addresses and phone numbers, and people responsible for cultural and historical concerns. Getting the descendant communities to engage and advise has worked well in Section 106 issues, and although this is largely a history issue, the same approach has merit. The story of Pennsylvania is also the Native American story. The colonists have told theirs. Maybe it’s time to let Native Americans tell it.
The 235 African American markers present a different challenge. Although African American markers got a much later start than Native Americans, the work done since, especially in the early 1990’s has helped tell the African American story. More work is needed, and not just noodling words here and there on selected markers. First, a clearer distinction and recognition needs to be made between markers that commemorate African Americans and those that commemorate their allies and accomplices. Part of the problem is the way markers are categorized in the marker database. Even markers tangentially related to a category may be marked as belonging to that category. Perhaps a way to search and count markers that is more truthful to their proper category is to divide them into their primary category, containing only direct subject-related themes. A secondary or related category could be captured in another column. The Act of categorization might be dismissed as simply the matter of making piles for sake of making piles. However, categorization is the basis for tracking, for metrics, and ultimately for measuring fairness and equity. Just the simple matter of asking the question, “How many African American markers are there?” depends on categorization. The PHMC says 235. African American markers that commemorate African Americans as agents of their history number 180. Should the other 55 markers be categorized differently? Perhaps.
Secondly, despite efforts since the 1970’s to increase representation, the kinds of historical markers and their subjects need to be broadened to more greatly reflect the range of African American experience in Pennsylvania. It has to go beyond teachers, preachers, and entertainers. And it has to extend past the City of Philadelphia limits.
As with the population of Native American markers, the best action would be to convene a panel of African American experts, historians, leaders, and yes, even politicians, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the population of African American markers and to recommend future additions and revisions. It was tried in 1976, with modest success. Fifty years later, it may be time to try again. This time, though, the working group needs to be given enough power to implement recommendations. People need to be able to tell their own stories. This extends to markers, both in whom or what is chosen for a marker, and what that marker says.
This analysis focused on Native American and African American themed markers. It did not consider women, Hispanic, LGTBQ+, or other minority groups. A marker program established by powerful older white men will likely show other deficiencies in representing the range of people and events Pennsylvania deserves. Another analysis for another time, however, it is gratifying to see that very recently, a marker to Gloria Casarez has been erected – a Latina, a woman, and a member of the LGTBQ+ community.
In addition to the review of historical markers, the cost of replacing or revising perhaps 500 markers, at $2,200 to $2,700 a piece, is definitely going to run into 7 figures. It is unreasonable to expect the descendant communities to foot the bill. Pennsylvania’s historical markers is a Commonwealth and statewide program, not a local community program? For that matter, asking a local community to pony up the $2,200-2,700 to erect a new marker, in addition to the leg work involved, puts economically disadvantaged communities in a bind. The costs of the markers should be borne by the Commonwealth, not by the local community. This was the approach in 1945, a whole of government effort. In conjunction with state funding, major foundations should be approached to provide additional funding, as was done in the 1990s with the William Penn Foundation.
The Historical Marker Program is under the same scrutiny of any other state program. In addition, given the renewed interest in our nation’s history, and our Commonwealth history, the Marker Program is the broadest and most cohesive tool historians have to teach us all about our past. That part is unchanged since the enabling 1913 legislation. What has changed is the way these stories are being told today and the need for the Commonwealth to fairly and truthfully and fully tell them.
-Levin, Kevin M, When It Comes to Historical Markers, Every Word Matters. Online Smithsonian Magazine July 6 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-it-comes-historical-markers-every-word-matters-180963973/
-PHMC Historical Marker Text Evaluation Report – December 2, 2020, Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, accessed October 5, 2021, https://www.phmc.pa.gov/Preservation/About/Documents/Historical%20Marker%20Policy%20Adopted%2009092020.pdf
-Beyer, George, Celebrating Fifty Years of State Historical Markers. Online Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Summer, 1996. http://paheritage.wpengine.com/issue/summer-1996/
-Robinson, John K. and Karen Galle, A Century of Marking History: 100 Years of the PA Historical Marker Program, Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Fall 2014, Volume XL, Number 4.
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission, First Report of the Historical Commission of Pennsylvania. 1915. New Era, Lancaster.
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Second Report of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. 1918.
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Conserving Pennsylvania’s Historic Past. Commission Bulletin 3, 1939 Harrisburg.
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Report and recommendations Concerning Historical Markers. Pennsylvania State Archives RG-13, Historical Marker Program Reports, Contracts, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Records, 1924-1945, Box A0107274, Folder 7.
-Stevens, S. K., Memo to Pennsylvania Historians. October 12, 1945. Pennsylvania State Archives RG 13, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Records Relating to Historical Roadside Markers. 1945-1953, Box A0107288, Folder 13.
-Stevens, S. K., Pennsylvania Marks its Historic Sites. Pennsylvania State Archives RG-13, Historical Marker Program Reports, Contracts, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Records, 1924-1945, Box A0107274, Folder 2.
-Shoemaker, Nancy, A Typology of Colonialism, Perspectives on History, the Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, October 1, 2015. Online at:
-Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. 1651, London.
-Shoemaker, Henry, Indian Folk Songs of Pennsylvania. 1927. Ardmore, PA: N.F. McGirr.
-Bronner, Simon J., Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Use of Folklore and History. 1996. University Park, PA. Pennsylvania State University Press.
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Photos and Programs for Markers, Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13 Historical Marker Program Reports, Contracts, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Records, 1924-1945, Box A0107274, Folder 1
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Shenck, Ex Sec’y, General Correspondence, 1928-1931, Historical Markers, Chief War Eagle. Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13, Administrative and Correspondence Files of the Chairman and Executive Secretary, 1927-1945, Carton 2: A1300835, Folder 2
-Gibson, Campbell and Kay Jung,, Historical Census Statistics on Population totals by Race, 1790-1990, and by Hispanic Origin 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States. 2002. Population Division Working Paper No. 56, Washington, US Census Bureau.
-Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Minutes of the Black History Advisory Committee, Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13, 1976-2009, Carton A0704326.
-Ibid. October 2, 1980 meeting.
-Ibid. June 17, 1982 meeting.
-Ibid. March 3, 1984 meeting.
-Ibid. September 30, 1988 meeting.
-Beyer, George, Celebrating Fifty Years of State Historical Markers. Online Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Summer, 1996. http://paheritage.wpengine.com/issue/summer-1996/
-Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Minutes of the Black History Advisory Committee, Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13, 1976-2009, Carton A0704326.