Ensure history is accurate, but don’t erase it
Ever since I was a youngster and old enough to realize the interesting information on roadside historical signs that dot our landscape, I’ve often found myself pulling over or urging the driver to pull over so we could read about the significance of the place.
Certainly, I’m not the only person who absorbs the information with great interest and assumes every word is factually correct. (Please understand, that’s not an easy admission for me, a journalist who always has been taught to question and independently verify everything. There’s an old adage attributed to long-ago editors at the City News Bureau of Chicago: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”)
The Associated Press now is reporting on a newfound desire to inspect historical markers for accuracy and context, along with racism that might be reflected in the signs’ verbiage.
Pennsylvania’s Historical and Museum Commission recently began inspecting its 2,500 signs seeking factual errors, inadequate historical context and racist or otherwise inappropriate references, the AP reported last week. So far, two markers have been removed, two have been revised and new text has been ordered for two others.
Inspections in Pennsylvania and other states were launched as part of a new awareness of racism in our nation.
We all know about the debate over whether historical statues all over our nation should be removed. Indeed, I understand this very controversial topic, but rest assured, I’m not here to debate that issue in this space today.
Still, somehow, I never thought historical markers with extensive verbiage sharing facts about our nation’s past would come to play in this debate.
As I see it, if this new examination is bringing to light FACTUAL inaccuracies and is not somehow attempting to erase or alter history, then I say great! We all should see the critical importance of finding ways to share American history in proper context with no racial, political or religious slant. After all, isn’t that exactly what this newspaper attempts to do everyday when we record history as it unfolds?
As anyone could have predicted, however, these new reviews of historical markers have become political.
In December, Senior Pennsylvania 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?'”
I should hope not! Yes, the confederacy existed, and whether or not we agree with the beliefs of Confederate leaders and soldiers, it cannot be erased from history.
Disputes about how historical markers should be worded — or whether they should exist at all — also have divided communities in other states in recent years, including in Memphis, Tennessee; Sherman, Texas; and Colfax, Louisiana.
That’s a shame. We all should agree that history is history, and that it never is wrong to review the way it’s presented on roadside signs to ensure it’s accurate and in proper context — as long as we aren’t attempting to change or erase the record.
Frankly, I am pleased to see that some states are looking for ways to expand these markers to include historic topics that involve more than just a focus on white Americans.
For instance, new markers approved in March include the first substantial workforce of Chinese immigrants in the state at a cutlery factory, the co-founder of one of the country’s first black fraternities and three Ephrata women who are among the nation’s first documented female composers. The re-examination of these signs also might help frame in a more neutral context the history of Native Americans.
“By being able to tell everybody’s story, it’s good for the society as a whole. It’s not to take away from anybody else,” said Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Let’s have these stories, because the more truth we have, the better it is.”
History is not something to be erased. It is something to be examined in full, honest detail. Taking a look at how we tell that story is an important step.