Residents urge state commissioner to leave Concord historical marker in place

By JAMIE L. COSTA

Monitor staff

Published: 05-12-2023 5:13 PM

The two civil libertarians who petitioned for a historical marker in Concord to mark the birthplace of labor activists Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote to state officials Thursday urging them to reject calls for the placard’s removal.

Gurley Flynn was a significant historical figure in the state and country and was much more than a Communist, they argued, which is what sparked criticism after the green marker was unveiled last week.

“We are distressed to hear that there are calls from elected officials and in the news media for the removal of a historic roadside marker about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn,” wrote Arnie Alpert and Mary Lee Sargent in a letter to Sarah Stewart, the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Removing the marker would go against the policies outlined by the Division of Historical Resources, which says they will be taken down if they contain errors, are in a state of disrepair or require refurbishment, none of which apply to the marker that was installed on May 1, Alpert and Sargent wrote.

Further, they cited the state’s own guidelines for approving markers, saying they are meant to “educate the public about New Hampshire’s history, not to honor, memorialize, or commemorate persons, events, or places.”

“There is no basis for the retirement of this marker, especially only weeks after it was established after being carefully vetted,” the letter read. “At this time, there are no grounds for the marker’s removal which are consistent with your department’s policies.”

Alpert and Sargent first submitted a letter to the state nominating Gurley Flynn, including a petition with 30 signatures of New Hampshire residents, proposed wording for the marker, and a suggestion for its location and proper historical citations for the marker’s accuracy and historical significance. All of those materials were forwarded to the Concord City Councilors, who were asked to approve the proposed location, which they did.

In their nomination letter, they outlined some of Gurley Flynn’s local and national history.

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“Long considered one of the most significant radical leaders of the twentieth century, she is remembered especially for her leadership in the labor movement, her advocacy for civil liberties, and her support for women’s equality,” the initial letter read.

“What is less well remembered is that she was born in Concord in 1890."  

Concord City Councilors are now asked to weigh in on the removal of the historical marker, which has drawn criticism from Gov. Chris Sununu and two Republican members of the Executive Council.

In a letter addressed to Mayor Jim Bouley, Commissioner Stewart asked the city to reevaluate the location of the marker and its request for removal.

However, the marker sits on state land and falls outside the jurisdiction of city officials, 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, but several councilors said they would be disappointed if the state decided to remove the marker.

“We continue to believe that Elizabeth Flynn Gurley had a significant impact on her times and that her significance has been amply established by historians,” Alpert and Sargent explained Thursday. “Her birthplace in Concord is a fitting location for one of New Hampshire’s distinctive roadside markers.”

Gurley Flynn was born in Concord in 1890 and later moved to Manchester where she saw the poverty of the mill workers. The historical marker, unveiled last week, sits at the intersection of Montgomery and Court streets in downtown Concord and notes her national work as a labor leader, civil libertarian, and feminist organizer. It also notes that she joined the Communist Party in 1936.

At 22 years old while visiting her family in Concord, she heard that more than 14,000 mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike after receiving pay cuts, according to “The New Hampshire Century,” a book published by the Monitor. Several people were killed during the Lawrence protest, which solidified Gurley Flynn’s opposition to capitalism.

For nearly 60 years, Gurley Flynn would spearhead labor strikes from the Midwest mining towns to East Coast textile mills, according to the chapter on Gurley Flynn in the “New Hampshire Century,” a book that profiled 100 people who helped shape New Hampshire in the 20th century.

In 1951, she was sent to prison under the Smith Act, formally the Alien Registration Act of 1940, which made it a criminal offense to advocate for the violent overthrow of the government or to organize/become a member of a group dedicated to such advocacy. After World War II, the statute was used against the leadership of the American Community Party, which Gurley Flynn chaired later in her life.

When she was released 28 months later at 66 years old, she continued to protest until her death at the age of 74. She died while visiting Moscow to write her autobiography.

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