State removes controversial marker honoring historical labor activist

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Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who would become head of the Communist Party in the United States, was born in Concord in 1890. Photo/Zoey Knox

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CONCORD, NH – A historical marker in Concord commemorating the birthplace of labor activist and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was removed Monday two weeks after it was unveiled. 

Born in Concord in 1890, Gurley Flynn became prominent as a labor leader, feminist organizer, and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was also member of the American Communist Party, which she chaired later in life. Despite her historic significance, Governor Chris Sununu and two members of the Executive Council expressed their disapproval of her Communist affiliation and called for the marker’s removal following its installation earlier this month.

The green-and-white marker was removed over the objection of those who petitioned for the historical sign to be placed in Concord near Gurley Flynn’s birthplace. 

 “To have the state say it’s uncomfortable with her memory and historical value being recognized because certain elements of her career are unpopular is distressing,” said Arnie Alpert, one of many who petitioned the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources for the installation of the marker in 2020. “She was already historically significant before she joined the Communist Party and that’s not the element of her life that makes her historically significant.”

Gurley Flynn was born in Concord in the late 1800s and later moved to Manchester where she saw the poverty of mill workers. Joining around 14,000 mill workers on a strike in Lawrence, Mass., which resulted in raised wages for more than 250,000 mill workers throughout New England, Gurley Flynn was seen as a hero of the organized labor movement. For nearly 60 years, she spearheaded rebellions from Midwest mining towns to East Coast textile mills, according to “The New Hampshire Century,” a book published by the Monitor profiled 100 people who helped shape New Hampshire in the 20th century..

In 1951, she was sent to prison under the Smith Act, formerly the Alien Registration Act of 1940, which made it a criminal offense to advocate for the violent overthrow of the government. After World War II, the statute was used against the leadership of the American Communist Party.

Both Alpert and co-petitioner Mary Lee Sargent are looking into whether they have any legal recourse to move forward with a lawsuit, he said. On Friday, the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources changed its guidelines and policies to align with the removal of the marker, which previously stated a marker could only be removed if it contained errors, is in a state of disrepair or required refurbishment.

Now, the policy reads that “markers proposed for revisions beyond the correction of errors shall identify elements that include, but are not limited to, existing inaccuracies, lack of historical context or references that could be seen as inappropriate.”

“All policies and guidelines were followed in removing this controversial marker,” Sununu’s office said in an email to the Monitor. “Through their public statements, the City of Concord made clear they were not advocating to keep the marker up. In their communication with the state, it was learned that the marker was located on state property, not city property as previously believed, and therefore the marker was removed this morning.”

The matter was brought before Concord city councilors, who were asked to weigh in on the removal of the historical marker. In a letter addressed to Mayor Jim Bouley, the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Sarah Stewart, asked the city to reevaluate the location and content of the marker and consider its removal.

However, the marker sits on state land and falls outside the jurisdiction of city officials who were only asked to approve the marker’s location, not it’s content, Bouley said. Councilors agreed to respond to the letter by explaining the state was under its own discretion about what to do with the sign. The letter did not indicate advocacy for or opposition to the removal of the marker.

When the state learned the marker was not on city land, it was removed in consultation with the governor, Stewart wrote in an email to the Monitor.

Historic markers are meant to provide the community with a snapshot of significant people and events. Concord has 13 other similar markers recognizing both local and state history, including one noting the ratification of the Federal Constitution and another commemorating Concord’s Sunset Baseball League, according to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

“That one person can override a two-year process and the will of a lot of people in the state… It’s autocracy,” Sargent said. “I’m just so disgusted and upset. We worked so hard and this is a woman who fought for free speech and she gest this. She should be recognized.”

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Jamie L. Costa

Jamie L. Costa is a reporter for the Concord Monitor.