Thoughts on Historic Markers

Lately I’ve started to notice historic markers. I often see them when I am riding my bike on country roads. I wondered, who are these signs for and what purpose do they serve?

I started paying attention to these signs after noticing one for the Underground Railroad on Lower Creek Road in Freeville. Upstate New York was an important destination on the path to freedom from slavery. The sign in Freeville marked a specific home which provided refuge. Specifically, the sign read as follows:

UNDERGROUND
RAILROAD
HOME OF WILLIAM HANFORD
AND WIFE ALTHA C. TODD,
WHO SHELTERED FUGITIVE SLAVES
ON WAY TO CANADA AND FREEDOM

APHNYS

Unfortunately, most historic markers I’ve witnessed are less remarkable. These signs tend to commemorate events that have blurred into the background of history: ends of old turnpikes, sites of early churches, mills long demolished. These markers tend to blend together as they reinforce dominant concepts in American history: European settlement of the American interior, the growth of industry, etc.

Historic markers are subtle cues to the stories that society has accepted and deemed important. They literally embed a narrative in the landscape for future generations to digest. Like statues, historic markers serve as a showcase for the values and beliefs of those who install them.

While historic markers don’t have the symbolic significance of large monuments, they deserve critical attention in my opinion. These signs tell us about the people whose stories mattered. In my experience, these markers too often reflect a history focused on the accomplishments of white people, men, and Christian congregations. People who do not identify with these groups will likely find it hard to understand how their past intersects with local history.

A new historic marker for the Alex Haley birthplace was recently installed in the City of Ithaca. I found it encouraging to see his story officially included as a part of the city’s history. However, this event also reminded me that there is much, much work left to address how racism in the past continues to echo into our present day.

In my view, a historic marker should cause its readers to pause and reflect on their role in history. It can be challenging to confront some facts about the past – particularly when we find our community’s history painful or our ancestor’s history repulsive. However, I think this reflexive discomfort is an important step to acknowledging uncomfortable truth and a prelude to taking meaningful action to address injustice.

Changing historic markers alone will not make our future more just, peaceful, or equitable. Like statues, monuments, and public art, these signs represent a small piece of our cultural consciousness. However, these signs are unique as they are physically attached to the earth and officially authorized by local historians (and often local governments). Their messages and placement are signals to the values which we continue to deem important.