The history of Texas, in the way it is taught, researched, and presented to the public, has reached a crisis point. Since 1897, the principal organization in the presentation, teaching, and researching of Texas history has been the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA). For 126 years, the TSHA has welcomed academics, lay historians, and anyone else at its meetings. On May 1, 2023, the interim executive director of the TSHA, J.P. Bryan, a retired oil billionaire, filed suit against the organization’s board of directors to block the board from meeting, and also threatened to sue the current president of the TSHA, Nancy Baker Jones, for defamation. The allegations in the lawsuit are important to this story, but when Bryan and his compatriots reached out to reporters regarding the controversy, it became clear that they have a much broader agenda. In short, they framed their dispute over the composition of the TSHA board as an ideological conflict, painting academic historians as “leftists, Marxists,” and worse, and Bryan and his supporters as defenders of “true” Texas history.
Given their published statements, Bryan and his supporters consider “true” history to be the perniciously persistent Texas mythology that uses white supremacy as a guiding principle. They favor triumphant tales of Anglo males conquering and defending a vast wilderness while ignoring the contributions and treatment of minority groups. The danger of returning to a whitewashed triumphalist history of Texas lies in erasing the contributions of minority groups. Such erasure would give us a warped sense of the past and lead to racist policies and politics in the present. Maintaining a mythic, triumphalist Anglo history would lead to increased discrimination and exclusion of minority groups in Texas today.
The writing and teaching of history never have been—and never can be—fully neutral. The way history is presented always tells the audience more about the present than about the past. History consists of two elements: historical facts and interpretation to provide a context, and a narrative to explain what those facts mean. Yet even the topics historians choose belie neutrality. As James Baldwin wrote in a powerful essay in the 1960s: “White man, hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read…The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” At best, historians must attempt to discover narratives while inevitably viewing topics from different and often competing perspectives.
This does not suggest that accurate or quality history cannot be achieved, but its creation requires confronting and attempting to overcome forces that have silenced or influenced the record. Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes how silences enter the historical record in four phases: during fact creation by the sources themselves, during fact assembly in the making of archives, during fact retrieval in the assembly of a narrative, and during retrospective significance in the making of history in its final expression. Minority groups suffer greatly in these silences. They often have had fewer sources created about them, received less attention in the assembly of archives, were included in fewer narratives, and therefore were often assigned less retrospective significance by historians. Other than silence, the force that influences history most is the personal. As Baldwin noted, “It is with great pain and terror … that one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins to attempt a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.” Trouillot wrote that “[W]e are never so steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence.”
The popular historical narrative of Texas that J.P. Bryan and his compatriots seek to revive was created after the American Civil War in a process that paralleled the birth of that war’s “Lost Cause” mythology. In 1888 Anna Pennybacker published A New History of Texas for Schools, which became the standard textbook for decades. Her scholarship placed outsized importance on the Texas Revolution—in particular the Alamo—and on glorifying the Texas Rangers. Of the defense of the Alamo, Pennybacker wrote that the “Texans stood” on the walls “like gods.”… With slavery and the Black experience in general erased, Mexicans demonized, and enslavers and Texas Rangers glorified, this textbook set the tone for the mythologizing of Texas history. Historian Gregg Cantrell in his article “The Bones of Stephen F. Austin: History and Memory in Progressive Era Texas” uses Austin’s 1910 reinterment in the Texas State Cemetery as a way to explain the creation of the popular historical memory of Texas. Cantrell asserts, correctly, that in the early 20th century, “Texans began distancing themselves from the memories of the Civil War era—memories associated with slavery, defeat, military occupation and poverty. … The result was a new public view of Texas history that emphasized Texas as both a Western and quintessentially American state whose identity sprang from the hardy pioneers who tamed the wilderness and defeated the Mexicans in the Texas Revolution.” He concludes: “While this may have been a very ‘usable’ past, at least for Progressive Anglo male elites, the triumphalism of the heroic Revolutionary past also left Texans with a highly sanitized collective memory in which Texas’s Hispanic past was largely forgotten and the state’s subsequent stake in slavery, secession, and racial injustice was glossed over.”
These views of Texas history held on throughout the vast majority of the 20th century, and only in the 1970s and 1980s did professional historians begin to challenge this collective memory. Texas historians began bringing narratives of forgotten and neglected groups to light, narratives that, over the last 30 years, the Texas State Historical Association, through the Handbook of Texas and the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, has continued to expand on. Still, many Texans continue to suffer under narratives constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not until 2012, barely a decade ago, did any minority group have a monument, the Tejano Monument, dedicated to them on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol, and not until 1980 did the State of Texas recognize the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery in Texas on Juneteenth as a state (and as of 2021), a national holiday.
All this brings me back to the lawsuit against the Texas State Historical Association. Bryan and his attorneys allege that the TSHA board is improperly constituted because the bylaws call for an equal balance between academics and nonacademics. He specifically objected to the election of Mary Jo O’Rear to the board by describing her as an “academic.” However, the TSHA bylaws provide the definition of academic “as an active or retired employee of an accredited academic institution whose position at that institution materially involves (or involved) the teaching and/or research of history.” Unless we are to include all current or retired public school teachers under this heading,
O’Rear is not an academic. Despite this, Judge Kerry Neves of the 10thJudicial District in Galveston issued an injunction on May 30, preventing the TSHA board from meeting and setting a trial for September 11, 2023. This court decision has resulted in Bryan governing the TSHA without oversight. With his stated ideology, it is not unreasonable to fear that Bryan is at this very moment erasing from the Handbook of Texas and elsewhere any Texas history he does not like.
Putting aside the fact that the future of the TSHA should not be decided by a lawsuit, once again Bryan and his defenders have used the composition of the board of directors as a façade to push their agenda. In a letter to the board, Bryan accused Jones of “promoting a version of history that totally ignores a large body of our membership.” Bryan has also publicly compared himself to the defenders of the Alamo and stated, “I don’t like their history,” as if he could wish away historical facts.
The TSHA should serve all the people of Texas. J.P. Bryan and his compatriots clearly want to return to Pennybacker’s whitewashed narrative, but today’s Texas is more diverse than ever, and our scholarship and scholarly organizations must reflect this diversity. TSHA’s own diversity statement reads: “As we enact our mission, our responsibility is to recognize, include, and preserve the histories of Texas people and cultures, all of whose stories are an essential part of Texas history.” We cannot return to the white supremacy of the Progressive Era.
As a seventh-generation Texan and an Anglo male, my own history and that of my family and forebears is already fully represented by the TSHA and its publications, and my goal is to make sure that all other Texans feel the same way.
In his writings, Baldwin included a stark warning about people who put themselves at the center of the historical narrative. He wrote that “people who imagine that history flatters them … are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.” Just as Texas cannot stand still, neither can our historical narratives. We have two paths in front of us: Either we can return to an Anglo-centric, triumphalist, white supremacist narrative, or we can break free and write new chapters in the historical narrative, chapters that include and reflect the glorious diversity of this state. We are at a crisis point, and I hope that you will join in a defense of the history of ALL Texans.