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Two Executive Councilors call for removal of state historical marker, days after it is unveiled

picture of the new historical marker
Zoey Knox
/
NHPR
Gurley Flynn, who would become head of the Communist Party in the United States, was born in Concord in 1890.

Earlier this week, the state unveiled the latest in its series of historical highway markers, summarizing the life of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, known as “The Rebel Girl,” on a green metal sign in Concord.

Gurley Flynn, born in Concord in 1890, was a prominent labor leader and suffragette in the early 20th century. She went on to help found the American Civil Liberties Union and later became an avowed communist. She died in the Soviet Union in 1964.

It’s Gurley Flynn’s political beliefs that sparked anger from Executive Councilors Joseph Kenney and David Wheeler, both Republicans, who called for the new historic marker’s removal Wednesday during a council meeting.

“I just want that out there; I am dead set against this,” said Kenney.

He called the erection of the sign, in a parking lot near the site of the house where Gurley Flynn spent her early childhood, an embarrassment.

“It’s not part of my history,” he said.

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The sign’s text notes her involvement in the labor movement, where she earned the nickname “The Rebel Girl” for her fiery speeches. The sign, one of nearly 300 historical markers around the state, notes that she joined the Communist Party and was sentenced to jail.

In the early 1960s, Gurley Flynn would serve as the head of the party in the United States. According to her obituary in the New York Times, Gurley Flynn’s body was laid in state in the Soviet Union.

“I’m just totally offended by that,” Wheeler said of the sign, which wasn’t on the Executive Council’s published agenda Wednesday.

He called for the council to have final approval of all signs moving forward.

Commissioner Sarah Stewart, who leads the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, defended the historical marker program, and noted their signs’ intent is not to honor but rather to inform.

“The purpose of them is not to commemorate heroes,” Stewart told the council. “The purpose is to provide a snapshot that the local community feels is of historic value.”

According to Stewart, historical markers are proposed by local citizens or groups, and then approved by local municipalities. A published set of guidelines adopted in January says the state does review all applications and makes a determination based on a set of criteria, including the historical significance of the person or event and their connection to the state of New Hampshire.

In the case of Gurley Flynn’s marker, the Concord Heritage Commission and then the city council signed off on the proposal, according to Stewart.

The state is tasked with verifying the factual accuracy of the text of the sign and working with the Department of Transportation to find a suitable location.

Gov. Chris Sununu, seated at the head of the council’s table during the discussion, asked for a complete review of the historical marker process, though no timetable was given.

Corrected: May 4, 2023 at 1:07 PM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Concord Historical Society signed off on the marker. It was the Concord Heritage Commission.
Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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