Several years ago, Wesley Edwards and several residents of LaGrange sat in a small conference room at the police station. They had gathered during the holiday season to discuss a crime so horrific Edwards struggled to accept that it had ever happened in the town where he grew up.
That Austin Callaway, a black man, had been lynched and left by the side of the road in 1940 had never been in question, but as they sat in the room debating how to tell Callaway’s story on a historical marker — the succinctly written public memorials spread across the American landscape — emotions were running high.
“Part of the emotional response to violence is to push it away. We had to not edit out the truth of the violence,” said Edwards, who is white. They debated over words. They held the local police chief to the fire, asking if he planned to apologize for the lynching. It was a heavy subject that meant a lot to people in the community, and they all knew they needed to get it right. “You are writing by committee, you have a very tight word count and you are writing about a very difficult thing. It was stressful,” Edwards said.
Easily recognized by their shape and distinctive lettering, historical markers seem simple enough. Those who stop to read the stories describing people and events of the past may not consider how those stories get written. As many Americans continue to challenge traditional views of history, historical markers have assumed a prominent role in the nation’s culture wars, and ideas about who should be writing them seem to be changing.