Local petitioners seeking legal action to reinstall communist-affiliated historical marker in Concord

By JAMIE L. COSTA

Monitor staff

Published: 06-08-2023 9:42 AM

Local petitioners fighting for the state to preserve and reinstate a controversial historical marker commemorating a communist-affiliated labor activist are seeking legal council to explore their options to have the marker reinstalled. 

Following the removal of the marker from downtown Concord last month, Mary Lee Sargent and Arnie Alpert wrote a letter to the state urging them to consider reinstallation but have received no response, despite a 10-day stipulation. 

The pair hand-delivered the letter to Commissioner Sarah Stewart of the New Hampshire Department of  Natural and Cultural Resources and Commissioner William Cass of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation on May 22. The state had 10 days to respond to their requests, which expired on June 1. 

“Following the removal and retirement of Historical Marker #278 for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, we are writing to get your assurance that the marker’s integrity will be protected and that it will not be defaced, destroyed or transferred out of the possession of the State of New Hampshire,” the letter read. “As good faith participants in the Historical Marker Program, we ask that you reconsider and restore Historical Marker #278 to its rightful place on Montgomery Street in Concord.”

Both Sargent and Alpert have decades of experience in movements related to labor, feminism and the protection of civil liberties and have retained the legal services of former Executive Councilor Andru Volinksy, who is helping them explore their legal options to have the marker reinstalled. 

Less than two weeks after the marker was unveiled on Montgomery Street near the birthplace of Gurley Flynn, a labor activist, feminist and civil rights leader of the 1900s, it was removed given the local and state attention the marker received in response to her communist affiliation as chair of the movement in the early 1900s. Both Alpert and Sargent said they are disturbed by the lack of response from the state. 

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“As we have said in previous communication with Commissioner Stewart, our proposal to have the marker approved strictly followed Division of Historical Resources guidelines and we still believe that the removal of the marker took place in violation of the department’s policies regarding retirement of markers,” the letter read.

Born in Concord in 1890, Gurley Flynn became prominent as a labor leader, feminist organizer and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. 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. 

“[Her] place in history is secure,” Sargent said. “It is outrageous that the judgments of three men could overrule a thoughtful process that marked the significance of a woman whose role in history is well established.”

Gurley Flynn 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, according to “The New Hampshire Century,” a book published by the  Monitor profiling 100 people who helped shape New Hampshire in the 20th century. 

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 the leadership of the American Communist Party. 

Following the removal of her marker in downtown Concord and allegations made by Alpert and Sargent about policy violations, the DNCR changed its guidelines and policies to align with the removal. The policies previously stated a marker could only be removed if it contained errors, was in a state of disrepair or required refurbishment. Now, the policy reads that markers can be removed if they contain “references that could be seen as inappropriate.”

The matter was brought before Concord city councilors last month who were asked to weigh in on the removal of the historical marker. In a letter addressed to Mayor Jim Bouley, Commissioner 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. 

Councilors agreed to respond to the letter by explaining the state was under its own discretion about what to do with the marker. The letter did not indicate advocacy for or opposition to its removal. When the state learned the marker was not on city land, it was removed in consultation with the governor.

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