Those Who Don’t Know the Past…
The outcome of a fight to control a nonprofit group could shape the teaching of history in Texas.
In the Texas State Historical Association’s (TSHA) March 2023 annual meeting program book, J.P. Bryan, the organization’s executive director—and former CEO of a multi-million-dollar energy company—included a poem:
The poem, by English writer J. Fairfax-Blakeborough and pulled from Walter Prescott Webb’s book glorifying the Texas Rangers, reads as a declaration of war to many Texas historians. The TSHA, the 125-year-old nonprofit that puts out widely used publications such as the Handbook of Texas, plus well-regarded periodicals and other materials, has become the latest front in conservatives’ quest to control the teaching of Texas history.
Bryan stated as much in the same program, vowing to ensure that the horror he sees as being depicted in Fairfax-Blakeborough’s poem “does not become reality in the teaching of Texas history.”
Bryan tried unsuccessfully at the TSHA’s annual conference in March to get his own candidate elected to the organization’s board. In April, in a bizarrely worded filing, he sued the TSHA president to keep the board from holding a meeting at which he expected to be fired. He won a temporary restraining order from a Galveston County judge to delay the meeting based on the allegation that the board’s current makeup is too heavily weighted toward academics, in violation of its bylaws. How this fight plays out, he told the Galveston County Daily News, “will determine the future of the way the history of Texas is written.”
Texas historians agree. Several TSHA members who spoke to the Texas Observer said they feel they are being bullied and that their jobs are in danger if they speak up. They fear Bryan’s actions will unravel the TSHA and muzzle historians, especially those of color.
Bryan told the Galveston newspaper that professional historians on the board want to “demean the Anglo efforts in settling the western part of the United States for the purpose of spreading freedoms for all.”
“That is a fairy tale,” said Ben Johnson, former TSHA board member and professor of history at Loyola University. “The idea that you’re going to make a historical organization tell only stories that are consistent with that kind of thinking—that is the death knell for any serious history.”
Republicans’ tactics here are as blunt as those they have used elsewhere. TSHA member and former state land commissioner Jerry Patterson told the Observer he drafted and sent to members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committee a rider to the state appropriations bill that would withhold $480,000 from the budget of the Texas Historical Commission that is intended for the TSHA if the association’s board is not reconstituted.
“If they have violated their bylaws to improperly constitute the board, they’re in jeopardy of losing their nonprofit status. This is a very serious matter and the current president and the majority of the board don’t get it. So we have to make them get it and put a contingency on the money that they would normally get to make them get it,” Patterson said. He served on the advisory committee for the 1836 Project, an effort to indoctrinate new state motorists and others with myths about Texan white-settler heroism.
Since 1897, TSHA has built a membership of lay and professional historians to document Texas’ history. It produces the widely-used Handbook of Texas and publishes the Southwestern Historical Quarterly as well as the Texas Almanac and other books on Texas history. The organization hosts activities and creates curricula for students, teachers, and historians.
Walter Buenger, TSHA’s chief historian for the past seven years, said the organization now includes far more diverse voices, topics, and approaches to documenting Texas history than it did when the Handbook of Texas started in the 1950s when it “focused mainly on white elite men.”
At a time when the organization is becoming increasingly diverse, Buenger said, Bryan “wants to take TSHA and Texas history in a different direction” and in doing so is “alienating its members.”
In over-the-top language, Bryan’s lawsuit accuses TSHA President Nancy Baker Jones of being “intoxicated with her thirst for power,” violating the organization’s bylaws when she nominated former teacher Mary Jo O’Rear to the board. Bryan claims in the lawsuit that O’Rear’s nomination tipped the balance in favor of academic versus non-academic members on the board and “emasculated the non-academic membership.”
Bryan claims that there are currently 12 academics and eight non-academics. But other TSHA board members count nine academics and 10 non-academics on the board.
Regardless of the board’s makeup, it’s apparent the lawsuit is personal for Bryan. He told the Observer that he filed the lawsuit “to stop the board meeting” when he found out he might be fired.
“She [Jones] told several individuals I know that I should resign and she had the votes to see that happen,” Bryan said. “The purpose of that meeting would have greatly impaired my ability to continue to perform as the executive director, and the board that would be voting on whatever the final proposition would be is not properly constituted in accordance without bylaws.”
Sonia Hernandez, a current board member and associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, said those distinctions are beside the point because the board does not control what kind of historical scholarship the organization publishes.
“The board of directors and the TSHA has never been in the business of censoring,” Hernandez said.
In March, when O’Rear’s nomination came to a floor vote, Bryan disrupted the vote and attempted to nominate conservative former Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, who could not be verified as a TSHA member.
The Observer spoke with TSHA members who attended the meeting but did not want to share their names or university affiliation for fear of retaliation. They said current attempts by conservative Texas legislators to curtail tenure and to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and policies in higher education make them even more fearful of losing their jobs for speaking up.
“We are potential targets just for the type of work that we do and the type of people that we are,” one source said. “It can be really scary, and a lot of us are just trying to do our work and keep our head down.”
The TSHA members told the Observer that after the vote, they witnessed Bryan target a Latinx historian, yelling, “You’ve got something to say to me?” Bryan had mistaken him for another TSHA member who publicly criticized his nomination. When two other Latinx historians tried to point out to Bryan that he had misidentified the person, Bryan then turned on them and questioned why they were at the meeting.
“It was clear that this was a bullying and intimidation tactic coming directly from J.P Bryan,” the source said. “He had a bone to pick with somebody and thought he could try to intimidate a group of scholars of color into silence.”
When questioned about this incident, Bryan told the Observer that he had apologized to the person he misidentified and that, at the time, he was being yelled at by the Latinx historians. He provided statements from people who said they had witnessed the exchange and that Bryan never raised his voice.
“I have never bullied anyone in my entire life. I certainly wouldn’t single out somebody of color. I don’t know anybody who’s been more concerned about Hispanics or the Hispanic community than I have. I have a hotel in Marathon, TX with 75 Hispanic employees, and I can assure you that I treat them all with the utmost respect,” Bryan said.
Other board members have also expressed fears of retaliation if they speak out. While Bryan was a founder, CEO, and president of a multi-million-dollar energy company called Torch Energy Advisors, these historians don’t have deep pockets for legal expenses. Another board member, Stephanie Cole, a history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, started a GoFundMe effort to help Jones pay her legal expenses. As of late Thursday, it had received more than 100 donations.
Bryan told the Observer, “I don’t want this to be a divisive fight. I would like for us to all come together and resolve this in a way that best helps the future of the Texas State Historical Association, so I can see everybody get an opportunity to tell their history and have an honest debate about it.” He said his goal was to “get the financial house in order” and to “correct the imbalance on the board.”
But the lawsuit is threatening to upend the association he helped save. Bryan told the Observer he had no clue there was a legislative proposal to defund the TSHA. However, he had earlier told Texas Monthly, “I would not want them to give it [the money] to TSHA if it’s only going to present one side of Texas history.”
TSHA’s next president could steer the association in a direction more favorable to conservatives. Justice Ken Wise of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals is expected to succeed Jones as board president next year. His podcast series, “Wise About Texas,” recounts the Texas Rangers as “protecting the young Republic of Texas from hostile Indians” among other tales about Texas’ traditional heroes.
On April 28 Bryan invited Michelle Haas, the founder of the Texas History Trust, to deliver introductions at TSHA’s patrons’ dinner. Haas has criticized Texans for not being “thankful to the Texas Rangers,” called historians “enemies of the Rangers,” and wrote “Land is for Winners” in reference to the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands. Both Haas and Wise testified for the bill that created the 1836 Project.
“At the heart of all this, it’s about history—what is good history and what is not good history,” TSHA Chief Historian Buenger said. “Good history is about assigning dignity to all groups, [with] accuracy, and honesty.”
“You don’t need to be afraid of certain things in the past if it happened,” he added. “Get it out there. If lynchings happened in Texas, it doesn’t have to be the only thing out there, but it also doesn’t have to be buried. Honesty is central to history.”
The Bryan Museum in Galveston offers a glimpse of the Texas history TSHA might promote if Bryan gets his way. The museum, which displays Bryan’s personal collection of historical documents, rifles, and Western gear, extolls the legends of Confederate soldiers who “fought bravely” and “defended the western frontier” and applauds the planters from Bryan’s family who with their own industry profited from agriculture, without mentioning the use of slave labor. He is a direct descendant of Stephen F. Austin’s sister. Another exhibit boasts that “Galveston’s rate of millionaires per capita was higher than any other U.S. city” because of banking and not because the city, for many years, was a thriving hub for the slave trade.
Buenger said that J.P. Bryan wants to preserve personal memory rather than history. He points out that memories can be as much about what is forgotten as about what is remembered.
“If you forget systemic racism or the role of women in the past, for example; if you forget those things so you can have a sort of happy history where everybody came together to build Texas,” Buenger said. “That leaves out as much as it includes. But honesty and accuracy demand that you include everything. Not leave it out. Not forget it.”