Time Will Tell

With every generation we get a fuller picture of our epic past, but we also risk losing more and more of the sites where Texas history happened, like a spot in Collin County I visited 28 years ago as a Cub Scout.

March 2011By Comments

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, I didn’t see anything that felt very different from Virginia,” he told me. “Someone asked me what I thought about East Texas, and I said, ‘Home.’ All the attitudes and atmosphere were the same.” Campbell believes that every historian is influenced by his background, and as a Southerner, he was shocked to learn that nothing had been written about slavery in Texas. “I started asking people about it, and they’d say, ‘Oh, we didn’t have slaves in Texas,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t even in the Handbook of Texas, which was published in 1952.”

So Campbell set to work poring over the historical record, and he discovered that in 1860 slaves made up approximately 30 percent of the population, roughly the same percentage as his home state. That research led to a book he published in 1989 called An Empire for Slavery: the Peculiar Institution in Texas, which remains the foremost authority on the subject. “I wrote it because I believed that the historical record ought to be straight. I’m not the kind of historian who wants to stand history on its head. The only way I could be considered a revisionist is that I was writing about things that hadn’t been written about before. But it wasn’t right for people in Texas to allow themselves the luxury of saying that we didn’t have slaves here or that we only had a handful.”

I was curious, though, to get the perspective of a native Texan as well, so I turned to Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, who was raised in Mercedes. A former director of the Texas Center for Writers (now the Michener Center for Writers), he joined the faculty of the English department at the University of Texas at Austin in 1981. “I think we’ve made great strides in telling the story of Texas,” he offered. “You have to love this state, but you can’t be blind to it.”

I asked him to tell me about a myth he was interested in debunking. He told me that many people didn’t realize that Mexican Americans in Texas had fought for the Union during the Civil War, but it was his second story that surprised me.

“In 1918 the Legislature passed a law that said no language other than English shall be taught,” he told me. “My students will jump on that and say it was aimed at Mexican Americans, and I’ll say no, no, no. This was during World War I, and it was aimed at the Germans. You had families scrambling to change their names. There’s a family I know up in Round Rock named Bridgefarmer. What the hell does that mean? Well, originally it’s ‘Brücke-bauer.’ ‘Brücke’ means ‘bridge,’ and ‘bauer’ can be a farmer.”

Hinojosa-Smith teaches Life and Literature of the Southwest, the class that Dobie invented and made famous during his years as a professor. But in an effort to broaden the perspectives of his students, in some semesters he teaches only Anglo writers (Dobie, Larry McMurtry, Katherine Anne Porter); in other semesters he teaches only Hispanic writers (Paredes, Sandra Cisneros, and Tomás Rivera); and sometimes he mixes the two. “I think it gives the kids a clearer picture of what Texas is—and what Texas isn’t,” he said. “It helps to tear down the old myths.”

But if the myths sometimes need tearing down, the sites of our history often need to be rescued, or rediscovered. Not long ago I drove out on Highway 5 to search for that historical marker, which I hadn’t seen in nearly thirty years. But what was once a two-lane highway is now six, and the marker was nowhere to be found. I circled around once or twice and finally stopped in a generic business park that is home to City Electric Supply and Phillips Painting. As far as I could tell, this had been the spot. It wasn’t until I got home and did some digging online that I learned that the marker had been moved in 1998—for no good reason, it seemed—to the nearby campus of the local community college about a mile away. Today there’s nothing to indicate that a parking lot is the place where, 167 years ago, members of the Muncey family met their violent death. But if you’re interested, I can show you the place. I think I know exactly where it is.

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