The story of all Pennsylvanians: How state experts are trying to make Pa.’s history more inclusive

By: - February 27, 2021 6:30 am

A historical marker at Locust Grove Cemetery in Shippensburg. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

In an effort to bring diverse voices to Pennsylvania’s historical record, the state’s top historical entities are working together to institute new approaches and reevaluate current methods of collecting, studying and sharing the commonwealth’s 340-year history.   

What began in 2018 as an effort to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and access practices into the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission (PHMC) has evolved into myriad efforts to “reflect the diversity of Pennsylvania’s history.”

Those efforts include the review of historical markers statewide, a commitment to presenting diverse voices in Pennsylvania’s history and expanding research into underrepresented areas and subjects.  

Established in 1945, PHMC, the state’s top historical entity, is “responsible for the collection, conservation, and interpretation of Pennsylvania’s historic heritage, which we accomplish through the Pennsylvania State Archives, the State Museum of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Trails of History (historic sites and museums), the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, and the Bureau of Management Services.”

Today, PHMC oversees 27 of historical sites across the commonwealth, employing around 200, ranging from administrators and historians to curators and educators. 

Also under PHMC’s jurisdiction is the approval of more than 2,000 historical markers in Pennsylvania. 

In 2019, PHMC began a system-wide review of the text of those markers, some dating back to the preceding agency’s era nearly a century ago. 

The effort, PHMC noted in a July 2020 blog post, was “in response to several public requests to remove offensive markers and as part of the agency’s commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEIA).”

“Public feedback is encouraged throughout the process, from bringing an issue to our attention to working with the PHMC to revise text, relocate and reinstall a marker,” Howard Pollman, a spokesperson for the commission said, adding that two of the three markers mentioned above have already been revised with community input, fabricated and will be shipped soon for reinstallation. 

Pollman said PHMC staff have reviewed all plaques and historical makers for “appropriate and respectful language and sensitive treatment of challenging subject matter.” However, he noted that the marker review panel has yet to convene to discuss the staff review. 

“After that review, staff will present recommendations at an upcoming commission meeting for their consideration,” Pollman told the Capital-Star. 

After a marker is reviewed by staff, it is up to the Historical Marker Review Panel to issue recommendations to the commission for revision or retirement of the marker in question. 

The 14-member commission, made up of the Secretary of Education, nine governor-appointed residents, and four members of the General Assembly (one from each caucus), must then vote on the recommendation, with a two-thirds majority needed to ratify the recommendation. 

To date, three historical markers and two plaques have been removed with another scheduled for removal.

In addition to the review of historical markers and implementation of its DEIA policy, PHMC is investing time and resources in areas of historical significance to Pennsylvania’s diverse communities. 

In October, the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), a bureau within PHMC, announced that it would be partnering with officials in  Maryland and Virginia, as well as the National Park Service, to identify, document and map sites significant to Black History and culture in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which encompasses large swaths of Pennsylvania following the Susquehanna River. 

In 2018, SHPO began encouraging marker nominations for underrepresented subjects and places, offering financial support to subjects “related to archaeology, women’s, Hispanic, Latino, and Asian American history, as well as Black and LGBTQ+ history in counties other than Philadelphia.”

In a 2020 statement last year, PHMC Executive Director Andrea Lowery noted the need for change. 

“ … Debates over Black lives matter, marriage equality, immigration, living wages, LGBTQ rights, gender equality, religious freedom, socio-economic inequities, and ableism permeate U.S. culture,” Lowery said. “PHMC, working with our partners, is embracing conversations about equity, access and inclusion and is embarking on the hard work of self-assessment and cultural change. The outcomes of this initiative will ensure that Pennsylvania’s museums will have the tools to engage in these conversations and the ability to take meaningful and intentional steps to ensure that all Pennsylvanians can engage with their history in an equitable and accessible way.”

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared. Follow her on Twitter: @Wordsby_CassieM.

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