Latest Gurley Flynn fight asks city to hold a public hearing on marker’s location

By JAMIE L. COSTA

Monitor staff

Published: 08-17-2023 4:39 PM

Residents challenged city councilors to hold a public hearing on their request to restore a controversial historical marker to its original site or install a new one on city property.

The marker for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn noted her contributions to labor activism, women’s rights and her involvement with the Communist Party. It was unveiled on May 1 and removed just two weeks later on May 15 after Gov. Chris Sununu and two members of the Executive Council expressed their disapproval because of Gurley Flynn’s communist involvement.

“Although no one could have likely anticipated that the marker would be removed almost immediately by state authorities, this was clearly an opportunity lost for the city to express its support for the marker,” wrote Adolphe Bernotas and James McConaha, former chair of the Concord Heritage Commission, in a letter addressed to Mayor Jim Bouley and councilors. “The public outcry was enormous with letters to the editor, opinion pieces, forums and other events related to the shock and dismay that people felt about what they perceived as an attempt to erase history.”

Their petition to councilors is this – give residents the opportunity to support a request to the Commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to reinstall the marker in its approved location, or put it on city property.

But because Arnie Alpert and Mary Lee Sargent, the two petitioners who pushed for the installation of Gurley Flynn’s marker near her birthplace in Concord, have recently filed a lawsuit against the state in the Merrimack Superior Court, Councilor Jennifer Kretovic felt it inappropriate to move forward with a public hearing without consulting the city’s legal team first.

“It might be wise for us to look at what this would mean so that our Heritage Commission would know what to do with a request and how it would work,” advised city attorney Jim Kennedy. “If something comes out of this between the state and the city, it might make sense to work out a path before it comes back to this body.”

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Councilor Erle Pierced questioned Kennedy on the legality of the city installing such a city marker. Kennedy replied that most city signs are street and traffic-related.

“That is a slippery slope when a public body does that,” Kennedy said.

Councilor Zandra Rice Hawkins said since no legal barrier exists preventing the councilor to approve the request, they should move forward with the public hearing.

“I am going to vote against any motions to bring this before legal or the Heritage Commission,” said at-large councilor Amanda Grady Sexton. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to resurrect the sign at all.”

Rice Hawkins disgreed.

“I think it’s completely appropriate to resurrect the sign,” Rice Hawkins replied. “We shouldn’t erase our history, we should make sure our history is shared and I agree with moving it forward to legal.”

Despite Grady Sexton’s concerns, the majority of the board voted to approve a referral to legal counsel before granting a public hearing.

Born in Concord in 1890 near Montgomery Street, Gurley Flynn became prominent as a labor leader, feminist organizer and founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. She later moved to Manchester where she saw the poverty of mill workers and was inspired to join more than 14,000 laborists on a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which resulted in raised wages for more than 250,000 mill workers throughout New England.

She was seen as a hero of the organized labor movement and for nearly 60 years, she spearheaded rebellions from Midwest mining towns to East Coast textile mills. In 1952, 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 leaders of the American Communist Party, which she chaired later in life.

Bernotas and McConaha’s request is the latest attempt to restore the marker after prior attempts to resolve the matter failed. Even before the marker was removed, the four fought to protect it and advocate for its importance to Concord’s history.

Alpert and Sargent’s lawsuit accuses 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.

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.

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