Pennsylvania Commission Reviewing Road Markers for Racist, Sexist Text, May Replace Some

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission is reviewing the state's 2,500 historical markers for potentially sexist and racist language, and already has removed or edited a few.

The commission's Marker Review Panel is putting an emphasis on how the markers portray African Americans and Native Americans, identifying 131 markers that may require changes. So far, it has removed two, changed the text on two and ordered new text for another two.

For example, a Philadelphia marker showing Continental Army Maj. Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne's birthplace refers to him as an "Indian fighter," so the commission ordered changes to the text. Another marker that was removed in Pittsburgh refers to British Gen. John Forbes' 1758 military victory as one that "established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States."

The commission will also provide financial assistance to underrepresented regions as well as to any markers telling stories of female, Black, Asian American, LGBTQ, Hispanic or Latino people.

Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Philadelphia's Temple University, told the Associated Press the edits to the markers can help battle systemic racism.

"By being able to tell everybody's story, it's good for the society as a whole," Turner said. "It's not to take away from anybody else. Let's have these stories, because the more truth we have, the better it is."

Paoli, Pennsylvania, historical marker
A recent review of all 2,500 markers the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission had been installing for more than a century faced a fresh round of questions about just whose stories were being told on the state's roadsides, and the language used to tell them. Above, a Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Revolutionary War Gen. Anthony Wayne in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Across the country, historical markers have in some places become another front in the national reckoning over slavery, segregation and racial violence that has also brought down Civil War statues and changed or reconsidered the names of institutions, roads and geographical features.

The idea that "who is honored, what is remembered, what is memorialized tells a story about a society that can't be reflected in other ways" is behind an effort by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative that has installed dozens of markers, mostly in the South, to remember racial terror lynchings.

At the request of Bryn Mawr College's president, Kimberly Wright Cassidy, the Pennsylvania history agency removed a marker from the edge of campus that noted President Woodrow Wilson had briefly taught there. Cassidy's letter to the commission cited Wilson's dismissive comments about the intellectual capabilities of women and his racist policy of federal workforce segregation.

The commission also is developing a replacement to a marker that has been removed from the grounds of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, on the site of a 19th-century prison, that noted Confederate cavalry were held there after their capture in Ohio during the Civil War.

The commission also revised markers in central Pennsylvania's Fulton County related to the movement of Confederate Army troops after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and related to an 1864 Confederate cavalry raid on Chambersburg that left much of the town a smoldering ruin.

One marker had previously described the last Confederates to camp on Pennsylvania soil — the state has since added language about their defeat by Union troops. The other marker, about two Confederates killed in a skirmish, was revised with detail about their raid and how Union soldiers from New York killed them and took 32 prisoners.

The changes have generated some political pushback, including from a Republican state representative, an appointee on the Historical and Museum Commission, who wrote in October about his objections to the initiative.

"My fear is that the commission is becoming less of a true historical arbiter and more of a miniaturized version of George Orwell's Ministry of Truth that has government officers alter history to fit the convenient narrative of those in charge," state Rep. Parke Wentling wrote.

In a report to the commission, a contractor recounted that an elected Fulton County commissioner harassed his team when they removed the old markers last year.

And this month, a senior state House Republican press aide, Steve Miskin, responded to a news account about the Fulton County markers with a tweet asking, "Is Pennsylvania planning to remove 'The Confederacy' from textbooks? Censor TV shows and movies mentioning 'The Confederacy?'"

Disputes about how historical markers should be worded — or whether they should exist at all — have divided communities in other states in recent years, including in Memphis, Tennessee; Sherman, Texas; and Colfax, Louisiana.

About a year ago it identified 131 existing markers that may require changes, including a subgroup of 18 that required immediate attention.

"The language could be sexist, it could be racist, it could be all those different things," said Jacqueline Wiggins, a retired educator from Philadelphia on the state historical commission's Marker Review Panel. "There's work to be done."

New markers getting approved are increasingly telling the stories of previously underrepresented people and groups.

Last year, the agency subsidized markers on petroglyphs in Clarion County, a camp where Muhammed Ali trained in Schuylkill County and the site of a boycott that stopped a school segregation effort in Chester County.

New markers approved in March include the first substantial workforce of Chinese immigrants in the state at a cutlery factory, the cofounder of one of the country's first Black fraternities, and three Ephrata women who are among the nation's first documented female composers.

Native American-related markers generally frame the Indigenous people in terms of the Europeans who displaced them, such as a Juniata County marker about "a stockade built about 1755 to protect settlers from Indian marauder."

"There is a lot of tap-dancing over who initiated which battle or skirmish," said historian Ira Beckerman, who recently produced a study focused on Pennsylvania markers that relate to Black and Native American history. "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."

Beckerman concluded that as a whole, the state's 348 Native American historical markers "tell a pretty accurate and compelling story of racism and white nationalism."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

New Castle, Pennsylvania, historical marker
The increased scrutiny over Pennsylvania's historical markers has focused on factual errors, inadequate historical context and racist or otherwise inappropriate references, prompting the state to remove two markers, revise two and order new text for two others so far. Above, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission plaque is seen along a roadside in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Keith Srakocic/AP Photo