On Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s 133 birthday, lawsuit filed to reinstate historical marker

  • FILE - Communist Party members from left; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Marion Bachrach, Claudia Jones and Betty Gannett sit calmly in a police van as they leave Federal Court in New York City, June 20, 1951, en route to the Women's House of Detention after arraignment on charges of criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence. (AP Photo)

  • FILE - A historical marker dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stands in Concord, New Hampshire, May 5, 2023. She was born in the city and became a labor activist who later joined the Communist Party and was sent to prison. Supporters of a now-removed historical marker dedicated to a feminist and labor activist from New Hampshire who also led the Communist Party sued the state on Monday, saying officials violated state law and should put it back up. The sign describing the life of... Kathy McCormack

  • FILE - Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is the only U.S. Communist Party official still free to operate, March 22, 1949, New York. Supporters of a now-removed historical marker dedicated to a feminist and labor activist from New Hampshire who also led the Communist Party sued the state on Monday, saying officials violated state law and should put it back up. The sign describing the life of Flynn was installed May 1 in Concord near where she was born on Aug. 7, 1890. It was removed two weeks...

Monitor staff
Published: 8/7/2023 2:59:59 PM

After months of urging state officials to restore a historical marker paying tribute to labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, advocates have escalated their battle by taking their fight to the courts.

Arnie Alpert and Mary Lee Sargent, the two petitioners who pushed for the installation of Flynn’s marker near her birthplace in Concord, have recently filed a lawsuit against the state in the Merrimack County Superior Court.

Their demand: Reinstate the Flynn marker at its original location.

“We’re hopeful that having an opportunity to be able to speak our piece in the court of law can lead to a favorable resolution,” said Alpert, speaking on the significance of the lawsuit filed on the 133rd anniversary of Flynn’s birth. “Meanwhile, we’re gratified that so many people, not only in our state but around the country are paying attention to the story and are learning about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.”

Their lawsuit accused key figures, including Governor Chris Sununu, Executive Councilor Joseph Kenney, Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Commissioner Sarah Crawford Stewart and Department of Transportation Commissioner William Cass of overstepping their authority. The suit argues state officials didn’t follow their own rules when they removed the marker following criticism from Kenney about Gurley Flynn’s communist affiliations.

Later in her life, Gurley Flynn chaired the Communist Party of the United States. She died at age 74 in Moscow during a visit in 1964.

“The marker was illegally removed based on ideological considerations that fly in the face of the historical marker program’s purpose,” said Sargent, who taught American history for several decades.

The marker, which was unveiled on May 1, cited Gurley Flynn’s contributions to labor activism and women’s rights. It was removed just two weeks later on May 15.

“It’s like the state going against themselves in a way; they should return it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Sargent. “But unfortunately, once politicians do things, they have to save face and not admit that they were wrong, but hopefully the courts can rule in our favor and get it reinstalled.”

Attorney Andru Volinsky, a former executive councilor, is representing the plaintiffs pro bono. The lawsuit asserts that the only acceptable remedy for their grievance is the reinstatement of the historical marker to its original location near Montgomery and Court Streets in Concord.

“Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is now becoming well known in New Hampshire where before she was not and I personally am thankful to Governor and the Council for messing it up so badly,” Volinsky said.

The marker’s removal adds to the existing disparity in the number of historical markers commemorating individual women as opposed to men, Sargent said.

Among New Hampshire’s 281 markers, only 11 are dedicated to recognizing women’s achievements.

“The fact that there are so few women and that it was done for political reasons, archaic beliefs in my opinion, and it was three men basically removing a marker when we had so few and so underrepresented as women,” said Sargent, a feminist who regards Gurley Flynn as a hero.

The lawsuit is the latest attempt to restore the marker after prior attempts to resolve the matter failed. Even before the marker was removed, their fight to protect it began.

At first, they wrote a letter to Commissioner Stewart, urging her to safeguard the marker against calls for removal by elected officials. But it was removed for the reason that Gurley Flynn was involved with the Communist Party of the United States, which she eventually led.

Last week, Alpert and Sargent highlighted procedural oversights in the marker’s removal at a Historical Resources Council meeting and urged the advisory council to consider what actions it could take.

According to the state’s historical marker program policy, the Division of Historical Resources should consult the council before retiring a historical marker. However, Gurley Flynn’s marker was removed at the direction of Sununu without seeking the advisory opinion of the council.

Sununu said the marker had no place being put up in the first place and he has no plans to reinstate it.

“An avowed communist who benefited from a state funeral in Moscow’s Red Square should not be celebrated in New Hampshire,” Sununu said Monday. “All policies were followed when removing this Anti-American sign and it will not be coming back under my watch.”

Alpert and Sargent are hopeful that the marker will be reinstalled, stating that markers are supposed to be based on professional judgment rather than the political whims or ideology of elected officials.

“This whole controversy was a surprise to us; it was certainly not what we were expecting,” said Alpert. “But once it happened, it seemed important to people in the community, and not just something important to the 40 people who signed those petitions.”

Sruthi Gopalakrishnan

Sruthi Gopalakrishnan covers environmental and energy stories in Bow, Hopkinton, Dunbarton and Warner for the Concord Monitor. In 2022, she graduated from Northwestern University with a master's degree in journalism, specializing in investigative reporting. She also has a bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Engineering and is always looking for new ways to incorporate data and visual elements into her stories. Her work has appeared in Energy News Network, Prism Reports and Crain's Chicago Business.

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