Yard signs popping up to honor woman whose historical marker was casualty of culture wars

Replicas of a historical marker for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a communist-affiliated labor activist, are popping up in yards around Concord after the original was removed by the state in May.

Replicas of a historical marker for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a communist-affiliated labor activist, are popping up in yards around Concord after the original was removed by the state in May. Courtesy

By JAMIE L. COSTA

Concord Monitor

Published: 07-07-2023 4:31 PM

Replicas of a historical marker for a communist-affiliated labor activist are popping up in yards around Concord after the original was removed by the state in May, two weeks after its installation.

To protest the state’s decision to remove the sign and bring attention to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as a prominent activist, feminist and civil rights leader of the 1900s, residents privately bought the yard signs for the cost of $7.

They are an exact replica of the original sign that was installed on the corner of Montgomery Street on May 1 and quickly taken down after Republican Gov. Chris Sununu questioned the process that landed the marker in downtown Concord.

“I’m just trying to spread the word now that the historical marker has been removed,” said Liza Poinier, who printed and distributed 75 replicas. “I want to help bring awareness to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and how important she is and was to labor rights and human rights and that she is an important person in New Hampshire history.”

Though Poinier printed the signs for distribution, the real leaders of the movement are Mary Lee Sargent and Arnie Alpert, who collected signatures and petitioned the state Department of Cultural and Natural Resources for the installation of the marker in 2020. Sargent and Alpert have decades of experience defending free speech and civil liberties.

The removal of the marker sparked outrage in the community after Sununu and two members of the Executive Council expressed their disapproval of Gurley Flynn’s Communist party ties and called for the marker’s removal.

“Like most people, I was not very aware of the historical marker when it was first placed but when they started talking about removing it, I was alarmed,” said Poinier, a former school board member. “It’s been really heartening to see how much support the community has given to this really interesting ‘Rebel Girl’ and the signs have been met with great enthusiasm.”

In an effort to preserve and reinstate the historical marker, Sargent and Alpert are seeking legal council to explore their options, while the former director of New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources and former Heritage Commission member Jim McConaha plans to ask City Council to petition the state to put the sign back, he said during the Heritage Commission meeting in June, according to the minutes.

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At the meeting, he said that the removal of the sign did not follow proper procedures set by the state and he felt most members of the public are in favor of bringing the sign back based on public comments that have been made since its removal.

“People want the city to make a formal request that we might take to the state for the return of the sign,” said councilor Jennifer Kretovic, who has a replica in her yard.

But there are other options to reinstate the sign in Concord, she continued, which could include either the city or a private entity purchasing the sign directly from the state, appealing to the state for reinstallation or the Heritage Commission could start its own sign program in the City of Concord.

“Right now, the sign at this point in time is sitting in an unknown location in the state,” Kretovic said. “We’ve gotten to a point where we don’t judge people by a moment in time but this woman is being judged by a moment in time and a singular word on that sign by three people that have a lot of power in this state. I think it’s an embarrassment that they removed it.”

Born in Concord in 1890 near Montgomery Street, Gurley Flynn became prominent as a labor leader, feminist organizer and a 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, the 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, which she chaired later in life.

“In my personal opinion, it’s all unnecessary and the state, the people who made the decision to remove the sign, should offer an apology and put it back up,” Poinier said.