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After advancing historic marker for Concord-born activist, state offers to remove it

A portrait of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Bain Collection
/
Library of Congress
A portrait of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

When the state’s request for a historical marker honoring 20th century labor activist and Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came before the Concord Heritage Commission last year, Jennifer Kretovic said the commission focused largely on questions about whether the marker would obstruct pedestrian or vehicle traffic — and whether it had historical relevance to the location.

They were aware of Gurley Flynn’s activism in the Communist Party, said Kretovic, who sits on the commission and the city council. But they didn’t spend a lot of time debating whether her politics made her worthy of a plaque.

“Whether I agree with it or not is completely secondary,” she said.

The marker was unveiled on Monday, following approval from the Concord Heritage Commission and the City Council last year. By Wednesday, top state Republicans were calling for its removal and for changes to how such markers are approved in the future.

City and state records show the State Division of Historical Resources wrote to the Concord City Council in September 2022 asking them to approve the marker. They did so after receiving a petition from a group of community activists.

Following the outcry from Republican officials this week, New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Commissioner Sarah Stewart sent a letter to Concord officials Thursday “to inform the City of the opportunity to reevaluate your approval of this marker.” Stewart noted that the state “is available to remove the marker at your request.”

picture of the new historical marker
Zoey Knox
/
NHPR
Gurley Flynn, who would become head of the Communist Party in the United States, was born in Concord in 1890.

In an email to NHPR, Stewart said the state has rejected some applications for historical markers in the past. She said their role “is to validate the historical nature of the application,” rather than passing judgment on the subject of the marker itself. The ideas and content of the markers originate from members of the community, she added.

Arnie Alpert is one of the people who petitioned the state for the Gurley Flynn marker. He said they tried to accurately and concisely capture the reality of who she was, including her links to communism. When drafting the message for the plaque, Alpert said he and others had tight parameters — up to 14 lines of text and 45 spaces per line.

“Here we have a significant historical figure born in Concord, New Hampshire, and [we’re] trying to capture the essence of her historical significance within the constraints of the New Hampshire State Highway Historical Marker program,” he said.

Alpert said it’s important to understand the historical context of figures like Gurley Flynn, who were involved in the movement for the rights of workers, women’s equality and protection of civil liberties in the early 20th century.

Kretovic, who sits on the Concord City Council and Heritage Commission, said it might be helpful for the state to consider adding QR codes to historical markers — or provide other ways for people to go deeper into the complex histories of the people listed.

“You could be telling a much greater story that puts the whole thing into context,” she said.

NHPR's Todd Bookman contributed reporting.

Corrected: May 5, 2023 at 9:37 AM EDT
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly identified Gurley Flynn on second reference. The story has been updated with the correct name.
Olivia joins us from WLVR/Lehigh Valley Public Media, where she covered the Easton area in eastern Pennsylvania. She has also reported for WUWM in Milwaukee and WBEZ in Chicago.