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Historical markers in America: the good, the bad and the quirky

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Have you ever had a moment when you're standing in front of a historical marker, you're reading along, and it occurs to you to wonder, hang on a minute. Is this story even true? Well, we have wondered, too, so much so that here at NPR, we've spent the past year analyzing the more than 180,000 historical markers out there. This week, we are launching a new series called Off The Mark. NPR and our member stations will be taking you across the country to look at how the nation is telling its own story through these markers. Here to talk about the series from our investigations team is NPR's Laura Sullivan. Hi there.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: And Nick McMillan, welcome to you.

NICK MCMILLAN, BYLINE: Thank you.

KELLY: OK. So more than 180,000 markers, and I think I'm picturing the same thing a lot of people listening will be, those big - those square metal markers...

SULLIVAN: That's right. Yep.

KELLY: ...You see, like, on street corners, side of the road. OK, Laura, kick us off. Headlines of what you found looking at them?

SULLIVAN: I mean, OK, we've been buried in historical markers for almost a year now. And I can tell you there are some amazing stories out there. I mean, there are funny stories and sad stories. And, of course, for anyone who's ever stood in front of a historical marker, you may have suspected some completely wrong stories. What people may not realize is that anyone can really put up a marker and all kinds of people have. We found more than 35,000 different groups, societies, individuals, all kinds of people who put up markers.

KELLY: And are there certain events, certain people, certain things that are more likely to be marked?

SULLIVAN: Some very popular topics. I mean, war and settler stories are huge, but so are markers about industry. You know, I mean, America's full of great ideas and inventions. So you see all these fun markers to these terrific inventions like the first glass oven door, the first telephone call. I mean, the first bread slicing machine is one of my personal favorites.

KELLY: (Laughter) OK.

SULLIVAN: You know, and some of these have actually led to some interesting problems because states appear to have gotten a little bit carried away.

KELLY: Oh, like, several states claiming the same thing.

SULLIVAN: Totally. And we found all these competing claims on markers. I mean, there are three state - different states that claim to have discovered anesthesia. Kentucky and Missouri, they both claim to be the home of Daniel Boone's bones. I don't know how they can be in two places. Michigan and Alabama both claim to be the home of the first western railroad. Then there's Maryland and New Jersey, but they both claim to have sent the first telegram. But, you know, there's also, like, a fun quirky side to many markers, Dozens of places claim to have world-famous things that most people have probably never heard of. I mean, there's a Santa Claus School, Bourbon ball candy. I mean, OK, somebody's probably heard of that. But there are also at least 14 markers to ghosts and aliens. Mississippi marks a spot where it says two men were taken to an alien spacecraft and examined.

KELLY: Sounds like one of those too good to fact-check historical markers.

SULLIVAN: Might check that one.

KELLY: Nick, hop in there because you're an NPR data reporter. You've got all these 180,000 markers. They say all kinds of different things. How do you begin to examine them all?

MCMILLAN: So there's a database of markers, and thousands of hobbyists take photos of them and put them in there. And it's called the Historical Marker Database. The rules, they're pretty simple. They have to be outdoors, permanent and have informational text on them.

KELLY: And is the database accurate? I mean, who keeps track of it?

MCMILLAN: It was launched in 2006 by a guy named J.J. Prats. He's a retired software engineer in Ohio. And he told us that one weekend, his wife had to work, and he was bored, so he decided to code a database for all the markers that he had visited. He sent it to his friends so they could put their markers in, and now thousands of people put in markers.

KELLY: And how far back does the database go?

MCMILLAN: Well, we found markers going all the way back to the late 1700s. But, you know, you really start to see markers start to take hold in the country in the 1900s. You know, that's when Americans began to hit the open road in their new cars. And, you know, states and towns found markers a great way to bring tourists to these out-of-the-way places.

KELLY: OK, Laura, I want to hop back to you. On the big historical moments, do the markers get the story right?

SULLIVAN: I mean, we found significant problems across the country. When we looked in the South, we found more than 500 markers that glorify the Confederacy or falsify the reasons for the war. When we looked at markers that mention plantations, we found almost 70% do not mention slaves. And then, again, when we sort of looked at the frontier and across the country, we found more than 270 markers that still call Native American savages or hostile or use racial slurs.

KELLY: OK. You found a lot of markers that would seem to have some problems. Can you just take the marker down and redo it?

SULLIVAN: It's very hard to take a marker down. So, I mean, some of these markers are a hundred years old. States told us it's difficult to know what markers are even out there, who owns them, what land they sit on. I saw this personally on a recent day. It was raining in Tuskegee, Ala., where the city has been trying to remove a Confederate marker in their town square, but it's owned by a private group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They've put up more than 600 markers. And council member Johnny Ford was pretty frustrated by the whole thing.

JOHNNY FORD: There are no daughters that live here. I think they're mostly dead. They don't pay any taxes here. They don't live here. Yet they want to dominate our square.

SULLIVAN: So Ford, he's 81. He's been trying to get this Confederate marker removed for something like 50 years. And he goes out there, and so he tries to cover it up with a bag. It's also got a statue on top. And at one point, he even tried to saw the thing down, but the saw broke. A lawyer for the United Daughters told us that the group has a right to keep the marker where it is because they own it and the slice of land that it's sitting on.

KELLY: Yeah. That's what I'm still trying to get at ss the question of, who owns these things? Who's in charge? Are states trying to intervene? Can they regulate these markers?

SULLIVAN: Outside the database and the historical societies in each state, it's very time consuming for states to even try to assess and review markers. A few states like Minnesota are trying. I mean, they were able to track down 206 in the state that the Minnesota Historical Society either paid for or help put up. They had to drive out to all of them because how else are you going to even know if they're still there? And when they did, they found every single one of them had a problem, either a grammatical error or offensive language.

I went out to one of them at a truck stop with Chantel Rodriguez another rainy day, and she's a senior public historian with the society. And she was standing in front of a marker that describes what was once a state asylum. And I can basically tell you that it describes people with mental disabilities using insulting names. And it sort of goes on to pleasantly describe the farms and activities of the mental asylum.

CHANTEL RODRIGUEZ: The story, while technically true, is very much papering over the realities of the experience to talk about it.

SULLIVAN: So if you decided tomorrow that you're just going to come chop it off here and write up something new, you couldn't do that.

RODRIGUEZ: For sure, we are responsible for the marker. The extent to which we fully own it is kind of unclear. It does become complicated.

KELLY: And when we hear her there saying, it's complicated, it's unclear - why is it so difficult?

SULLIVAN: It's hard to figure out the ownership. In this case, the marker has the Historical Society seal, but it's on land that belongs to the Department of Transportation. And it may have at one point belonged to the Department of Parks and currently may be leased to a company that's running the truck stop. She says they are working with groups that represent survivors of these asylums to try to write a new marker and see what can be done.

KELLY: That is NPR's Laura Sullivan and Nick McMillan. Thanks so much to you both. Can't wait to hear what else you have found.

SULLIVAN: Thanks, Mary Louise.

MCMILLAN: Thank you.

KELLY: And you will be hearing over the next few weeks these stories from our series Off The Mark, as well as stories from NPR network stations all over the country who've been examining markers in their local communities. You can find all our stories online by searching for NPR and historic markers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.
Nick McMillan
Nick McMillan is a fellow with NPR's Investigations Unit. He utilizes data driven techniques, video and motion graphics to tell stories. Previously, McMillan worked at Newsy on investigative documentaries where he contributed to stories uncovering white supremacists in the U.S. military and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rican school children. McMillan has a bachelor's in Statistics from Rice University and a master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland.