CONCORD, N.H. — Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spent her life fighting and agitating for the rights of workers, women, and immigrants on the margins of society.
Now, nearly 60 years after her death, she’s still whipping up controversy.
High-ranking Republicans in New Hampshire expressed outrage in early May after the state installed a new historical marker near Flynn’s birthplace in Concord. The early 20th-century labor leader and feminist had joined the American Communist Party in the 1930s, and served as its national chairwoman in the 1960s. They called her communist ties an offense to veterans.
Less than two weeks later, the marker was gone. State officials confirmed that they decided to have it removed, after consulting with Governor Chris Sununu.
The marker ignited a debate over how someone like Flynn should be remembered and what role, if any, the state should play in acknowledging her.
The green aluminum sign, which summarized Flynn’s life in less than 100 words, had been unveiled May 1 near the intersection of Court and Montgomery streets in Concord.
The sign had described Flynn, who was born in Concord in 1890, as “a nationally known labor leader, civil libertarian, and feminist organizer” who joined the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union, at age 17 and earned her nickname, “The Rebel Girl,” by delivering “fiery speeches.” The sign noted that Flynn was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union who joined the Communist Party USA in 1936 and was later imprisoned under the Smith Act.
Two members of the state’s Executive Council spoke out May 3 against the historical marker, citing Flynn’s involvement with the Communist Party as the basis for their objection. One of them, councilor Joseph Kenney, called Flynn “anti-American” and said a sign honoring her has no historical value in New Hampshire.
Kenney told the Globe on Monday that the marker’s removal is a victory for everyone who served in the US military to fight against communism.
He pointed out that Flynn wasn’t a low-level member of the Communist Party. She served in leadership and received a state funeral in Moscow’s Red Square when she died in 1964 during a visit to the Soviet Union, he noted. He said he would have asked his fellow executive councilors this week to write a letter asking that the marker be taken down, had the state not already done so.
Progressives have defended Flynn’s legacy as multifaceted and worthy of recognition, and a historian told the Globe that questioning Flynn’s communism doesn’t negate her status as a significant political figure from New Hampshire.
Lara Vapnek, a history professor at St. John’s University in Queens who wrote a biography about Flynn, said the marker was factual and served as “an invitation for more learning and more study and consideration of history.”
Flynn was a leftist who knew her ideas were controversial, but she saw her work as an expression of support for American ideals, Vapnek said, noting that Flynn traveled the country during World War II to rally support for the fight against fascism.
“She saw herself as a patriot, honestly,” Vapnek said.
State officials, including Sununu, incorrectly suggested that Concord city officials were responsible for the state-owned sign.
“I’m all for taking the thing down. ... I don’t think Concord should ever have been advocating for it,” Sununu said May 5 in an interview on New Hampshire Today.
In a letter to Concord officials, Sarah Stewart, New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources commissioner, offered to remove the marker if requested, but city officials said the sign was never theirs.
City Councilor Amanda Grady Sexton told the Globe last week that state officials mistakenly believed the sign was on city property.
“It’s clear that the state is confused about their role in the process of creating historical markers, and they could benefit from a larger conversation about when and how these signs are placed throughout the state,” she said.
Ben Vihstadt, a spokesman for Sununu, said the sign was removed Monday morning after state officials “learned that the marker was located on state property, not city property as previously believed.” He acknowledged that Concord city officials had made clear they were not advocating to keep the sign.
During the New Hampshire Today interview, Sununu said Flynn was “incredibly un-American.” The interviewer, Chris Ryan, followed up by asking whether New Hampshire should similarly view former president Franklin Pierce as un-American for his views on slavery. Pierce, a Democrat from New Hampshire, maintained the status quo with regard to slavery and left office four years before the Civil War began. Sununu objected to the comparison.
Arnie Alpert of Canterbury — who worked with Mary Lee Sargent of Bow to request the marker for Flynn and advocate for it through a years-long approval process — said no one notified him of the sign’s removal.
Alpert said Flynn’s views were controversial in her lifetime and remain controversial to this day. Nonetheless, one would hope that New Hampshire wants to face history rather than “cancel” uncomfortable elements, he said.
“It’s distressing,” Alpert said, “that the state would make an official act to deny the historical significance of a Concord native who played an important role in the assertion of the right to freedom of speech, the rights of workers, the rights of women.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said the marker was removed after the governor reviewed the policy and guidelines for the state’s historical highway marker program. Both of those documents were updated on Friday, nearly two weeks after the marker was put in place.
The updated policy adds language to stipulate that the commissioner has final approval over new historical markers and that the commissioner is tasked with determining whether a historical marker will be removed.
Kenney said he’ll seek clarity at the Executive Council’s meeting on Wednesday to better understand who has authority over the decision-making process and what exactly in the policy has been revised.
Globe reporter Amanda Gokee contributed to this report.
This report has been updated with additional comments from state officials.
Steven Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @reporterporter.