Mrs. Nitcholas had big hair and a bright laugh, and she didn’t think twice about hugging her students in the maternal kind of way that school districts now discourage. She was a popular third-grade teacher at Meadows Elementary, in Plano, and she taught both my older siblings years before I bounced down the hallway wearing a Roger Staubach T-shirt and frowning at the prospect of something called long division.
I have many memories of her—she used to refer to me as “Sweet Sweany”—but the one that stands out involved my birthday. Nobody had ever mentioned to me that March 2 had any particular significance, but she beamed when she realized that I had been born on Texas Independence Day. With a great sweatered arm wrapped around my shoulder, she confirmed that I was a native Texan, then called over to some of the other teachers, adding, “You know, this also means that you were born on Sam Houston’s birthday!” The ring of smiling women looking down at me made me feel as if I were the chosen one, and I couldn’t wait to share the good news with my mom and dad—and to find out who Sam Houston was.
I suppose that most kids who were born and raised in Texas can supply a similar memory—the moment when they understand, perhaps dimly at first, that they live in a special place, a place that their parents vow never to leave, a place where grand events have happened in the not-too-distant past. This realization might not come until later, when the child leaves Texas and discovers that in other parts of the country, elementary school teachers don’t crowd around a third grader just because he happens to have been born on the same day as the first president of the Republic; that, in fact, other states don’t even have a first president of the Republic.
Or it might come all at once. I may have begun the third grade historically challenged, but Mrs. Nitcholas’s enthusiasm triggered what has become a lifelong interest in the stories of this state. I remember one day when my Cub Scout pack, which met at Meadows for Indian dances and pine wood derbies, traveled to a spot just north of town on the old Highway 5 to visit the historical marker at the site of the Muncey Massacre. This was the sort of forced educational march that is the bane of most kids’ existence, but there I was, wide-eyed, staring hard at the empty field where, our leader explained, the last great Comanche raid in Collin County had taken place, in 1844. What stuff this was for a child’s imagination! Indians, swooping down to wreak havoc on the earliest settlers of my hometown, not far from our Dairy Queen.
I thought a lot about those two moments while working on this special anniversary issue of TEXAS MONTHLY . Our theme this month is the epic history of Texas, the magnitude of which Mrs. Nitcholas first alerted me to and the omnipresence of which I first discovered as a member of Pack 291. In this issue we have sought to tell our history with a list of places, 175 of them in all, historical sites where events of great significance transpired. Like the site of the Muncey Massacre, many of these spots are little more than vacancies. Because progress rarely defers to the past, our landmarks have all too often been torn down, papered over, and lost in anonymity. Yet the history they contain is no less alive. These locations—the site of the country’s first rodeo (now a downtown street in Pecos); the schoolroom in Cotulla where Lyndon Johnson taught public school (currently a DPS office); or the building that housed the Brownsville Herald when Américo Paredes took his first writing job as a newspaper reporter (boarded up)—are full of the ghosts of Texas past. You just have to know where to look.
And also how to look. Given that our state spans so many geographic regions and encompasses so many groups of people with such different experiences, what is the best way to tell our history? How can a single telling do it justice? As history is told and retold, each new version gives us a fuller picture of the past. For generations, the official story of Texas was wildly lopsided, even distorted. Many of the writers that once shone the brightest—Walter Prescott Webb or J. Frank Dobie, for example—have been at best derided for elevating myth and folklore above fact and at worst for marginalizing and stereotyping minorities and women and the crucial role they played in the formation of Texas. Certainly we have made strides over the past few decades with such wide-ranging titles as David Montejano’s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas , which was published in 1987, or Paula Mitchell Marks’s Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production, which came out in 1996. But those are hardly the kinds of books that appear on most coffee tables.
The question weighed on me, so I called Randolph “Mike” Campbell, who published a well-received single-volume history called Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, in 2003, and asked him if we were finally in a position to tell the full story of Texas. “Let me give you a professor’s weasel answer,” Campbell replied with a laugh. “It is possible to tell a great deal more of it than was once told. Until the fifties, the history of Texas history was told as the triumph of Anglo civilization over inferior cultures. Today we are paying attention to women, to African Americans, to Mexican Americans, and to Indians. For a long time too many groups didn’t figure in the story of Texas, and now we understand how prominent they were.”
His own research proves the point. A Virginia native, Randolph has been teaching at the University of North Texas, in Denton, for 44 years. “When I arrived here,