Executive Director’s Message

From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

I have changed my mind about historical markers.

I once thought that they were outmoded reminders of the days when people drove on our highways at a more deliberate and courteous pace, and leisurely ambled about our cities and towns, unhur­ried and unrushed. I also thought people of that era could actually stop and read the text of our state historical markers. Today, however, most of us race along and scarcely notice these sturdy blue and gold placards that tell us about the famous people, places, and events in our history.

I have come to realize that historical markers are an ex­tremely important means of communication in our quest for – and practice of – public history. I know, too, that the Commission’s state historical marker program is one of our most popular and enduring forms of commemoration and interpretation.

Since 1945, the Pennsylva­nia Historical and Museum Commission has erected more than fifteen hundred markers. In the program’s early days, markers for political leaders and military events dominated the list, reflecting a rather limited view of our shared heritage. Nevertheless, even in those first decades, markers for Native American towns and individuals – along with military defeats and “massacres” – were approved, suggesting the Commission’s recognition of a broader perspective.

In recent years, emphasis has been placed more on the Keystone State’s social, cul­tural, and economic history, as we attempt to assume a more comprehensive point of view and address the contributions of groups and events not well represented by early markers. Since 1989, for instance, more than seventy state historical markers have been approved in Philadelphia under the themes of African American history. The financial support of the William Penn Founda­tion and the research and assistance of Temple Univer­sity’s Blockson Collection have helped us to place markers to many notable individuals­ – John Coltrane, Julian Abele, Paul Robeson, and James For­ten, among them – and to significant institutions, such as Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and the Berean Institute.

Throughout the Common­wealth, markers to labor lead­ers and strikes, mining disasters, inventors, writers, social reformers, and entertainers have filled in the gaps of our roadside heritage. Nom­inations for state historical markers are chiefly generated by citizens, historical societies, and anniversary committees. With the advice of a panel of historians, who convene annu­ally to review nominations, the Commission considers each in light of guidelines that stress contributions of statewide importance. Each year, about twenty new markers are erected in cities and towns, and along the highways.

Local sponsors usually host dedication ceremonies in con­junction with marker unveil­ings. Many ceremonies are quite brief, but some are elabo­rate, attracting hundreds of participants and spectators, including children. l have attended dozens of these marker dedications, and I enjoy seeing the children’s reactions to the proceedings. Do they think – as I once did­ – that a historical marker is something out of another time and place? They probably do. But I hope that they will even­tually appreciate historical markers as “touchstones of memory,” small outdoor ex­hibits that invite all passersby to consider and reflect upon Pennsylvania’s past and the incredibly diverse people that have shaped our history.

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director