When It Comes to Historical Markers, Every Word Matters

Who tells the story has a significant impact on what story is told

A civil war marker
A civil war marker in commemoration of the Battle of Atlanta is unveiled as Georgia Historical Society board member Bill Todd, left, looks on during a ceremony Monday, April 11, 2011 in Atlanta. AP Photo/David Goldman

Who controls how and what we remember about the past? That question might not occur to you as you speed down the open highway—but maybe it should. Mile after mile, marker after marker, it’s a debate that’s largely played out on the roads we travel every day.

Historical markers are a ubiquitous presence along many of the nation's highways and country roads. You can spot their distinctive lettering, background color, and shape without even realizing what they commemorate. And their history is more fraught than you might think.

States have celebrated their pasts since the United States was born, but it took more than a century—and the creation of modern roads—for roadside markers to become a tool for public memorialization. Virginia's historical marker program is one of the oldest, beginning in 1926 with the placement of a small number of signs along U.S. 1 between Richmond and Mount Vernon. A small number of markers were erected in Colorado, Indiana and Pennsylvania even before this date. By 1930, Massachusetts had 234 markers along its roads—and these early tallies don’t include markers placed by local individuals, organizations and larger heritage groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The largest number of state-sponsored programs, however, followed World War II.

In the two decades after the war, American families took to the roads on vacations that had as much to do with pleasure as a desire to explore and embrace historic sites that reflected the country's national identity and democratic values. In 1954 alone, around 49 million Americans set out on heritage tours of the United States, including Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These sacred places allowed Americans to imagine themselves as members of a larger community bound together by common values—and encouraged good citizenship at the height of America's ideological struggle against the Soviet Union.

These pilgrimages also reinforced a traditional historical narrative that catered specifically to middle-class white America. Stories of Pilgrims and Puritans, Founding Fathers, westward-bound settlers, and brave American soldiers dominated this consensus-driven picture of the nation's past. The vast majority of historical markers reinforced these themes on a local level, pointing out important events or notable residents—most of them white and male—as travelers wound their way to their final destinations.

A narrow and celebratory view of local and national history left little room to highlight stories of minorities. It certainly precluded any references to chapters in American history like slavery—an institution that challenged the story of a country that had only recently defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and saved the free world.

This consensus view of American history has not held up. In recent years, historians have uncovered new voices and looked more closely at a past some Americans would like to forget. As the concept of American history expands, there’s been a call for public spaces to more accurately reflect this more nuanced history—and for the expansion and revision of many state historical markers. Now, historical markers are on the front lines of the culture wars.

In 2015, Greensboro, North Carolina dedicated a historical marker commemorating the violent events of 1979 when the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi Party and members of the Communist Workers' Party clashed, leaving five dead and twelve wounded. But the marker’s reference to the "Greensboro Massacre” raised some eyebrows. Detractors took issue with describing the event as a massacre as opposed to a shootout. Supporters of the city’s action, however, viewed the unveiling as a step in a larger process of reconciliation within the community.

A historical marker in honor of Socialist Party of America founder Eugene V. Debs is proving similarly controversial. It will be located in front of the Old Courthouse in Woodstock, Illinois, where Debs was jailed for six months for disobeying a court order. But despite text approved by the Illinois Historical Society, some in the community expressed concerns that the marker will "be viewed as celebrating socialism and labor unions" rather than Debs’ role in Illinois’ long history of labor unrest.

Not surprisingly, no event has proved to be more controversial to recognize through historical markers than the American Civil War.

Take Georgia, where the Georgia Historical Society (GHS) placed new historical markers commemorating the Civil War’s 2015 sesquicentennial. The goal was to foster a conversation about the Civil War throughout the state by introducing the latest scholarship. The group also corrected older markers that embraced a traditional “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War as heroic victory. Markers commemorated African-American soldiers in combat near Dalton; General David Hunter's emancipation proclamation issued at Tybee Island; an attempted slave revolt in Quitman; the rejected proposal by General Patrick Cleburne to enlist slaves in the Confederate army; Georgia's secession convention in Milledgville; and Savannah’s “Weeping Time”—the largest slave sale in American history.

Each marker rallied defenders of the Lost Cause, who charged, in the form of letters to the editor of local newspapers and to the GHS, historical revisionism and decried the memorials’ “political correctness.” Two markers focusing on Shermans’ March—the march of Union General William T. Sherman's army from Atlanta to Georgia in late 1864 that left much of the region in waste—proved to be the most controversial. The "March to the Sea" markers offered a scholarly assessment of this crucial moment in the war, noting that, "contrary to popular myth," the destruction wrought was targeted and not complete. The marker also emphasized how the campaign hastened the end of slavery, emancipation and a reunited nation.

Former president Jimmy Carter was the marker’s most prominent—and surprising—detractor. The monument was originally placed on the grounds of the Carter Center in Atlanta, but in May 2015, writes W. Todd Groce, historian and CEO of the GHS, in an essay in the forthcoming book Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites, the GHS received a letter from Carter “demanding that the marker be either removed or re-written to reflect a more traditional Lost Cause interpretation.” Carter wanted the marker to say that all homes and towns along the route of the March, with the exception of Madison, were burned to the ground.. Carter was unaware that not only was Madison spared, but so were Covington, Eatonton, and Milledgeville—thus reinforcing the need for the marker to exist in the first place. In the end, the GHS re-located the marker to downtown Atlanta.

It is difficult to explain Carter's affinity for the Lost Cause, but he seemingly viewed the marker's explanation as misguided and perhaps even as a threat to a deeply held memory of the war that was picked up at an early age. Regardless of the reasons, Carter and others in the Confederate heritage community were unwilling to grant the GHS any authority on this controversial event in Georgia's Civil War history.

The program also engaged African-Americans whose stories and history has been routinely eclipsed in public by the Lost Cause. Groce described the marker program as an unqualified success. According to Groce in his essay, "Georgians overall were receptive to our presentation of recent scholarship and showed that they were willing to question popular understanding of our nation's defining event."

Despite pushback from both the usual and unusual suspects, not a single marker was forcefully removed or damaged. But all three incidents are a reminder that even something as seemingly innocuous as a historical marker can serve as a historical battleground. In the battle for historical memory, every word matters—and every marker does, too.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.