Pros and Cons of Historical Markers

Last week an Alabama-based Civil Rights organization, Equal Justice Initiative, released a report entitled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The report is unique in that it compiles a comprehensive inventory of nearly 4,000 lynching victims throughout the Deep South from 1877 to 1950, including many new names not listed in previous inventories. The New York Times also ran a story on the report with fancy visuals and more background information on Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI.

A lot of interesting discussions emerged on my Twitter feed about various strong and weak points of the report and the need to provide more context about the horrifying consequences of lynching so that these victims are not portrayed as mere numbers or crime statistics. Historian Kidada E. Williams covers some of these concerns here.

I’ve been focusing on the public history side of these discussions. Central to Mr. Stevenson’s vision for reckoning with this history is the erection of historical markers in locations where lynchings occurred. By installing these permanent markers at “ground zero” sites, Americans will have daily, tangible reminders of the lives lost by white mob violence in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. I believe the idea of erecting historical markers to commemorate this tough history is necessary, but that it’s only a starting point for further inquiry.

Historical markers come with certain advantages and disadvantages for thinking critically about history outside the classroom. Generally speaking, historical markers are a cost-effective investment in history for towns, cities, and states of all sizes. Besides the initial start-up costs for erecting a marker there is little expense beyond basic maintenance to maintain historical markers, which allows small towns like Kirvin, Texas, and Elaine, Arkansas, to preserve a part of their history without the expense of a museum, historical society, temporary exhibit, or professional staff. And historical markers, combined with digital technology, allow for viewers to write, photograph, collect, and share their experiences at markers through websites like Historypin and The Historical Marker Database. Historical markers also do a good job of emphasizing the importance of local, regional, and state history that often gets passed over in the history classroom. Many of the markers researched and cared for by the Indiana Historical Bureau, for example, do a nice job of connecting local history to national history in a way that demonstrates how small communities throughout Indiana have contributed to the story of the United States.

A historical marker, however, can only take you so far. A marker will not answer any questions in real time that you may have about the content you are reading. Most markers are limited to around 20 to 200 words, and in many cases that text doesn’t go beyond the restatement of basic facts, leaving readers wondering why a particular marker is significant (this marker dedicated to Hannah Milhous Nixon is a great example. Why is this marker important? Who cares?). I personally have had experiences at historic homes, museums, Civil War battlefields, national parks, and even monuments and statues that inspired me to learn more about a given historical topic and, equally important, share that interest with friends and family. With the exception of one uniquely notable historical marker, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such feelings after looking at a historical marker.

It’s one thing to read historical content on a static marker. It’s a whole other experience to engage in active dialogue with an interpreter or educator in a public history setting who has passion, content knowledge, and the ability to craft an interpretive story that creates meaning and raises questions that one may not readily consider when looking at a marker text alone. When at all possible I prefer to listen to and converse with an interpreter than read a marker text. I realize that not everyone would chose to learn in this manner, but the point is that we should strive to create interpretive opportunities in both settings so that interested parties have multiple avenues in which to connect with the past.

Talking about a difficult and sensitive topic like lynching requires intensive training in both historical content and interpretive techniques, however, and I’m curious to learn more about places where interpreters regularly discuss these topics. What are cultural institutions doing to discuss lynching and rioting in museum exhibits, public programming, and other interpretive mediums within public history?

The floor is yours.

Cheers

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