In July the Bolton Hill Community Association launched an initiative to review public historic markers in the neighborhood. Motivated by this summer’s nationwide protests of systemic racism, the review is meant to face and learn from names, plaques, and monuments that may glorify individuals or causes that championed racism.
An apt example is a small public plaque honoring longtime neighborhood resident William Marbury Sr., a distinguished attorney of his time. Marbury was part of a line of attorneys who argued the legality of discriminatory laws and deliberately acted to bar Black people from living in Bolton Hill.
Reflecting the overt racism of their time, these types of actions were pervasive among White neighborhoods throughout the country and ensconced in laws at all levels of government. Sometimes we hardly notice markers of that past in Bolton Hill. Other markers are very evident among us, yet we may not have seriously questioned why they are there. A statue on Mt. Royal Avenue erected in the early 20th Century to honor soldiers of the Confederacy was abruptly removed by the mayor in 2017, after the violent conflict over removing monuments in Charlottesville. This new review is an opportunity to respond to them deliberately and thoughtfully.
That response may mean that a marker is kept the way it is or perhaps an additional interpretive plaque is added next to it, or perhaps it is removed entirely. Only the city can change or remove public names, plaques, and monuments, but BHCA’s recommendation on how they should be handled greatly affects what happens to them. Bolton Hill also has Blue Plaques, which are part of a neighborhood-specific program honoring homes where noteworthy figures of history resided. Homeowners must pay for their Blue Plaque and its installation, so any changes to them must be done with the consent of the current homeowner. A separate review will be undertaken of the process for nominating and selecting honorees of Blue Plaques, leading to a process that’s more transparent and systematic for the next round of Blue Plaque recipients.
After a call for ideas and suggestions for the review, BHCA has heard from about a dozen members of the community. A steering committee of neighborhood residents—Jean Lee Cole, Neal Friedlander, Steve Howard, David Nyweide, and David Scott—is assembling a review committee for the public historical markers and will eventually do the same for the Blue Plaques. The racial mix on both committees must be given careful consideration, as White people need to be involved to face the potential racism represented by these markers and Black people need to be involved to build back up whatever is taken down. The committee could also have a credibility problem if it is perceived to be a mostly White or Black exercise. Someone in an adjacent neighborhood may serve as a kind of external member of the committee.
The review committee will be charged with identifying potentially problematic public markers; compiling public comments and existing research on the markers; and making recommendations on the markers to the BHCA board of directors. There will be opportunities for further public input and research on these markers before the review committee makes its recommendations. If you have ideas or suggestions or would like to serve on the review committee or volunteer in some capacity in the review process, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be clear, this review of public historic markers is not an exercise in effacing history. It’s instead a learning opportunity that will make use of extensive research to learn the reasons why certain historic markers were erected or certain places were named within the neighborhood. The reasons why Bolton Hill has certain markers and names are their own history, and the aim is to understand them better to best convey that history today.
We might ask why that small plaque to William Marbury, Sr. was given on behalf of the Mt. Royal Garden Club, as it reads below his name. What contributions did Marbury make to the Mt. Royal Garden Club? When was it placed there? Why is nothing directly near it? Is the plaque even still relevant at its location today?
– David Nyweide