Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

Of all the duties PHMC commissioners perform, the one I enjoy most is representing the commonwealth at Pennsylvania Historical Marker dedications. Sometimes there’s music. Often there’s food. Always there are speeches, which is the best part of all. There’s always something surprising to learn about Pennsylvania’s past.

The first marker dedication I attended was with PHMC Commissioner Ophelia Chambliss for the Hotel Brotherhood USA in Philadelphia, an early African American labor union, founded in 1884. Since then I’ve unveiled numerous markers in Philadelphia, including the massive Terminal Commerce Building, opened in 1931 as the largest commercial building on the East Coast, and the Insurance Company of North America, founded in 1792, the first U.S. firm to insure a building’s contents from fire. Another dedication was for Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse, a much beloved free park opened at the advent of the American Playground Movement in 1899. The park is known for its long, wooden slide. You climb up stairs, sit on a burlap bag, and off you go. At this one, I shared the speechmaking with a constituent: my 7-year-old grandson.

I think of Pennsylvania Historical Markers as “history, retail.” By that I mean the type of history that moves beyond academe and into the streets where everyday life unfolds. Community members who seek markers submit lengthy and well-documented applications, which are then reviewed by a committee of PHMC staff and a panel of Pennsylvania historians. The marker program is more than 100 years old, and to date more than 2,500 subjects have made it through the rigorous process (see “A Century of Marking History”, Fall 2014).

PHMC Commissioner William V. Lewis Jr., chair of the marker review panel, has attended many dedications over the years. “Some can be very emotional,” he told me, recalling the marker commemorating the 1919 Baltimore Mine Tunnel Disaster in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, in which 92 miners lost their lives. “Despite the bitterly cold weather, a victim’s two elderly daughters
and many of his grandchildren were in the audience.” The students from King’s College who submitted the application were also there. Some had never known anything about this devastating tragedy that took place in their own community.

The markers are Pennsylvania’s way of honoring its most significant people, places and events. You and I may never have heard about some of the subjects they commemorate, but through these markers, Pennsylvanians have a permanent record of the commonwealth’s heritage that is worth remembering.

So, next time you see one of the blue and yellow aluminum markers, stop for a moment, look up, and get your history, retail. There’s a good chance you’ll learn something surprising.

 

Leon Howard Sullivan marker dedication at Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, October 16, 2017: left to right, W. Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia; Nancy Moses, PHMC chair; William B. Moore, pastor, 10th Memorial Baptist Church; Albert W. Campbell, supply pastor, Zion Baptist Church; Mildred Fitzgerald Johnson, trustee/historical marker chair, Zion Baptist Church; Raymond Blue, associate pastor, Zion Baptist Church; and Herb Lusk, pastor, Greater Exodus Baptist Church. Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Leon Howard Sullivan marker dedication at Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, October 16, 2017: left to right, W. Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia; Nancy Moses, PHMC chair; William B. Moore, pastor, 10th Memorial Baptist Church; Albert W. Campbell, supply pastor, Zion Baptist Church; Mildred Fitzgerald Johnson, trustee/historical marker chair, Zion Baptist Church; Raymond Blue, associate pastor, Zion Baptist Church; and Herb Lusk, pastor, Greater Exodus Baptist Church. Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Nancy Moses is an author, a planning and development consultant, and chair of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.