On the mild, cloudy day of April 14, 2015, exactly 150 years and five days after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army at a courthouse in Virginia, an unusual spectacle took place in a committee room inside the Texas Capitol, the grounds of which are adorned with towering monuments and paeans to the slave empire’s army. A thirteen-year-old middle school student from Austin named Jacob Hale was defending a bill, drafted by him and given to his state representative, that would correct what he regarded as a grievous mistake: The state of Texas celebrates a holiday called Confederate Heroes Day, on January 19, Lee’s birthday. That year, as sometimes happens, it fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Young Hale, testifying at a House committee meeting, explained in his prepared remarks that he didn’t want to erase the holiday; he wanted to change its name to “Civil War Remembrance Day” and move the date so that future overlaps could be avoided. “Many Texans were also killed for allegedly having pro-Union sentiments,” Hale said, noting that Confederate soldiers weren’t the only people who should be remembered. Broadening the scope of the holiday would make it “a more accurate symbol of our state’s diverse history.”
Testifying against the bill was a long succession of older men and women, some of whom called the boy deluded and naive. “We don’t have as many heroes as we used to,” said John McCammon, who testified on behalf of “myself and my Confederate ancestors.” Rudy Ray, another member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Hale’s bill threatened to do “great damage to our heritage.”
But whose heritage is “our heritage,” exactly? Texans have a much stronger sense of their history than the citizens of any other state, and that shared vocabulary seeps into our public life. But many Texans’ knowledge of the state’s past is focused on what happened during six months in 1836, when the Texas Revolution was fought, and what occurred between 1860 and 1865, when we tried to extricate ourselves from the Union. (It is perhaps telling that 1846, the year that Texas entered the Union, does not loom so large.) Even today, the lowest insult one Texas politician can hurl at another is to compare him to Moses Rose, the man who left the Alamo before the fighting started—a slur that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick directed at House Speaker Joe Straus, a fellow Republican, in 2017.
If you’re one of the Texans interested in the centuries other than the nineteenth, though, you’re in luck. Academics are producing more and better studies and stories than ever before about previously untold parts of our history—and reevaluating the eras we already know so much about. They, and many of their amateur counterparts, are breathing life into widely forgotten or poorly understood events that shaped the state. They are correcting long-held misperceptions and figuring out where the bodies are buried—sometimes literally.
A 1994 book by University of North Texas professor Richard B. McCaslin revived interest in the Great Hanging at Gainesville, the killing and mass burial of dozens of accused Unionists seventy miles north of Dallas in 1862 that was long celebrated by some locals as a great victory. In Slocum, an hour west of Nacogdoches, where as many as two hundred African Americans were killed in a fit of genocidal violence in 1910, descendants are struggling to find long-ignored mass graves with an assist from self-taught historian E. R. Bills. In Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston, another self-taught historian, Reginald Moore, is fighting for a memorial to mark the mass graves that resulted from convict leasing, a system of de facto slavery that postdated the legal end of slavery in Texas.
These corrections to the historical record are the result of decades of work by historians who, over the last half-century, have fought against their profession’s old guard and, at least within the halls of academia, won. Most history professors at state universities look well beyond the subjects that dominate popular histories: military campaigns, the Texas Revolution, the Wild West. For years, they’ve focused on social and cultural histories detailing how ordinary people lived and tracing the subtle forces that shape places and people over generations.
Efforts to interest the general public in these new histories, however, have met with stiff resistance. Hale’s bill didn’t come close to passing and was DOA in the next session. Attempts to commemorate past violence are often stonewalled by local historical commissions. A recent effort to renovate the Alamo site precipitated a political backlash with racial undertones. And Texas lawmakers have leaped to the defense of Confederate memorials at the Capitol and across the state.
“You see a really big gap between the advances in the field of history and what’s represented in Texas public history,” said Monica Muñoz Martinez, an assistant professor at Brown University and the author of The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, a recently published book about racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border. “For generations, the idea among historians was, if you get a good education and you go to a good school and you write good books, that’s what’s required to make a mark on the public understanding of the past.” If that was ever the case, she believes, it isn’t now.
She’s hardly alone in her pessimism. “I think Texas history is broken,” said Ty Cashion, a historian at Sam Houston State University. In the second half of the twentieth century, young historians brought new energy and new approaches to countless subjects such as Tejano history, African American history, Native American history, women’s history, and labor history. These historians—often referred to as “revisionists,” though many of them reject the term— wanted to show that Texas had a richer and more interesting story than older historians would have it. But the change in public consciousness many hoped for hasn’t happened. “In 1991 traditional history was moribund,” said Cashion. “Scholars were assuming that a new usable past would emerge and push all the gunsmoke and horseshit away. But it’s still standing.”
“In the nineties I was optimistic that things would change,” said Walter Buenger, a history professor at UT-Austin. “Momentum seemed to be on the side of the historians who were trying to present an alternate history. But that has not happened.” The history that has the most appeal to some members of the public and is most useful to politicians, he said, is still “traditional history,” which means “white men on horseback and an emphasis on politics, the military, and the nineteenth century.”
Buenger believes traditional history is here to stay, whatever the scholars do. “The old history is useful to reinforce social status and undergird political ideology,” he said. “It undergirds white supremacy.” The old version of the story of Texas, he claims, makes people who have status—and are anxious about losing it—comfortable. More recent histories, by contrast, are complicated and discomfiting, and it’s rare in life that people choose to be uncomfortable.
But for all these academics’ self-doubt, there are signs that change—however slow, contested, and incremental—is happening. That’s why so many defenders of the Confederate States of America showed up to defeat Jacob Hale. The myth of the Lost Cause is gradually being rolled back, as the recent high-profile battles over Confederate statuary demonstrate. Valorization of the Confederacy is itself a revisionist history that must be constantly nourished and renewed, or it will wither. Like Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, it’s an uphill battle.
Some 37 years into his long and distinguished career at the University of North Texas, historian Randolph B. “Mike” Campbell took a shot at the king: T. R. Fehrenbach, whose popular 1968 work, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, elevated and codified the mythological history that you might remember from seventh grade into a kind of common creed that persists to the present day.
Fehrenbach was an eminently readable author and Lone Star was the first general history of Texas published in several decades. It’s the story of the group Fehrenbach calls the “Anglo-Celts” and their “wresting” of Texas from “the wilderness, the Indians, and the Mexicans.” He relates this clash of civilizations in a brutal and straightforward way: the Alamo, the cattle drive, the Indian raid. It is widely regarded as the most important thing ever written about the state, in terms of its impact on the public. It is also, for many contemporary historians, an object of resentment and even hatred. “From the day it was written, it was written off by scholars,” said Cashion. “But since 1968, it’s gone through something like twenty-four printings.”
Fehrenbach, a self-taught historian, wanted to tell a good story—he compares Texas history to a Greek tragedy. But Lone Star is rife with errors both of fact and interpretation, and omissions as well. He doesn’t touch the twentieth century until the 35th of 37 chapters, and when he does, it’s clear he’s not much interested in it—once the frontier ends, so does his enthusiasm. But the book remains an important part of how Texans learn about their history. There’s a generation of historians who have “spent their whole careers beating their heads against T. R. Fehrenbach,” said Rebecca Sharpless, a historian at Texas Christian University. “And still he stands.”
“Fehrenbach was very old-fashioned,” Campbell said. “The book needed to be balanced, and it was a dream of mine that I could be the one to balance it.” So in 2003 he wrote a book for Oxford University Press, Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, that he hoped could serve as a modern, updated general history of the state, one written with the benefit of decades of additional research. Campbell strove to write a book that is scrupulously balanced and fair (he calls himself a moderate) and tries to balance some major deficiencies in Fehrenbach’s work.
Fehrenbach, who was born just outside of Brownsville, loved and emphasized the Wild West. Campbell, born in Virginia, corrected that bias by establishing the many commonalities that Texas had with other Southern states, many of which were, like Texas, cotton-producing economies that depended on slave labor. In Fehrenbach’s telling, Yankee carpetbaggers hijacked a Reconstruction led by wise ex-Confederates, causing racial strife. Campbell showed that wasn’t the case and wrote that that myth became an “article of faith” that shaped Texas’s future.
Gone to Texas received positive reviews from other historians. “I would like to think I succeeded,” Campbell said, “but the sales figures are another story.” Lone Star told Texans they laid claim to a glorious and exceptional, if also terrible, birthright of conquest and the frontier. Gone to Texas told them they actually looked a lot like other Americans, with a similar history and similar shortcomings. You can guess which one they chose.
Historians have a lot of different opinions about how to win the public’s attention. In one corner is Don Frazier, a historian at McMurry University, in Abilene, who calls himself a narrative historian. Though he is well regarded by his contemporaries and often writes about social and economic history, he also focuses on the military aspects of the Civil War, the kind of history the academy generally considers uncool. Frazier thinks the increasing specialization of academic history has created something of a crisis in the field: historians are disconnected from the public, and the number of undergraduate students who study history has plummeted, part of an overall decline in interest in the humanities.
“A lot of well-intentioned people who believed history should be reformed couldn’t bring the American people with them,” he said. The younger generation of historians abandoned narrative histories and general histories in favor of more specialized, rigorous work. The result was some very fine books and journal articles read by very few people. “They got out ahead and looked back and saw nobody behind them,” he said. Like it or not, “historians have to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and there doesn’t appear to be a market for history that is kind of scolding all the time. We know more and more about less and less. In our zeal to tell untold stories, we forgot to tell the known stories.”
Historians, Frazier said, are “writing for the people one office over and not the people that are at their Little League games.” History’s appeal to most people, he said, is elemental: “People like a good yarn,” which most contemporary historians aren’t trained or inclined to write. The result is that the public understanding of history gets worse. “Find the human elements,” he advises his colleagues. “There need to be characters, and there needs to be movement. It can’t just lay there.”
That’s advice he’s tried to put into practice with his current project, an unusual undertaking for an academic. “It came about when I was riding a jet plane with Phil Collins,” he said. (The “Sussudio” singer has a lifelong obsession with the Battle of the Alamo.) “I asked him when he was going to do Alamo the Musical, kinda punching on him because he wrote the songs for [the 1999 Broadway musical] Tarzan. He said, ‘How’d you know I was working on that?’ ” According to Frazier, Collins said he hadn’t found a way to make Davy Crockett sing, but he dared Frazier to try his hand.
Eventually, Frazier wrote his own play, focused on the Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson and William B. Travis’s slave Joe, which will be produced next summer at a theater in Abilene. The play, he said, centers on the question of historical memory and whom the story of the Alamo “belongs” to. “So much of what we know about the Alamo comes from a woman and a person of color,” he said. That’s what he thinks history needs to do: push us to reconsider what we know about the past but give us some drama and some fully fleshed-out characters to make the lessons more vivid and compelling.
Cashion thinks that it’s difficult to reconcile the old and new histories because they’re so different in form. “For a long time there was only one story, and that was our usable past,” he said. Fehrenbach propagated a “metanarrative” that taught that “true Texans” redeemed the land from savagery. New historians needed a big story to replace it. “Scholars are postmodernists, and they don’t believe in metanarratives,” he said, which “is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.” Cashion’s proposed story: that Texas, rather than a place where the Anglo-Celts brought civilization to a wild land, as Fehrenbach argued, is a place of competing self-interests. Anglo men won their rights at the battle of San Jacinto, and everybody else has fought to win theirs over the decades that followed.
Gene Preuss, a Tejano historian at the University of Houston, said that even the worst stories in Texas history can be told in a way that provides some degree of comfort and guidance to the public. Many people argue that focusing on past tragedies causes “division.” Others object that it’s wrong to judge our ancestors by the standards of our times; it’s unfair to expect a nineteenth-century white man in Texas to have the attitudes toward, say, race, gender, and sexual preference held by a twenty-first-century college graduate. And there’s something to that. If the lesson we take from history is that we’re inherently better than our uncouth forebears, we’ve missed the point.
But Preuss said that in almost every unpleasant incident in Texas history, “there were people who stood up and said, ‘That’s wrong.’ ” Their example, he believes, shows that “you can judge people by the standards of their own times. There’s a lot of hope in the fact that in most such episodes, some people acted humanely, even if they were in the minority and even if they didn’t succeed.” Good history, useful history, isn’t the story of villains and victims; it’s the stories of how people navigated complex moral realities in their own times, stories that can help us better navigate ours.
Often, academic history finds its best use as the material with which popular historians build their own narratives about the past—people like David McCullough, Barbara W. Tuchman, or Rick Atkinson. (Or, in a different medium, Ken Burns.) Some of those folks will, for sure, simply repackage the same old stories over and over in snappier, more modern language. But the best also draw on the work of modern scholars and integrate their insights into compelling narratives.
When Austin author and journalist Stephen Harrigan set out to write his new history of Texas, Big Wonderful Thing (excerpted in this issue), he was influenced by the work of historians like Andrew Torget, author of Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800–1850, and Juliana Barr, who wrote Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands. “I admired almost all of what I read,” he said, “and my challenge was to fold that new information and those new perspectives into a big, broad, long narrative.
“A priority for me was to make the book as reflective as possible of the enormous complexity of Texas history and, crucially, to make it entertaining. I’m a journalist and a novelist, not a historian. I bring different perspectives, different tools to that process.”
People take a special interest in history, UT’s Walter Buenger said, when the wider world starts to look shaky. Lone Star, for instance, was published during the upheavals of the late 1960s. “I’ve always suspected that in a way that book was written to push back against the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the student movement,” he said. Interest in Texas history also peaked from 1890 to 1920, when there was a huge influx of immigration from Mexico. “That’s when we started celebrating the Alamo,” Buenger said, “which had practically been falling down until then.” (At one point, it was used as a warehouse for a local grocer.)
Today, Texas is at another inflection point. Anxiety over the changing demographics of Texas runs through every aspect of the state’s politics. We’re now a minority-majority state, and sometime during the next few years Hispanics will outnumber non-Hispanic whites. Add in the state’s booming growth and increasing urbanization and changing social norms, and you’ve got a large number of Texans who are holding on to a mythic past in order to deal with a raucous present. Arrayed against them are the people who think a changing state deserves a fresher version of history.
That’s made for a situation that historians—academic and popular—live for: people, especially young people, are vitally interested in arguing about the past. Recent debates about Confederate monuments around Texas have been a flash point. The most deadly charge levied by monument supporters against the people trying to tear them down is that they want to erase history, like Stalin excising his purged political opponents from photographs. That’s essentially what state senator Brandon Creighton charged in a lengthy speech on the floor of the Senate earlier this year as he laid out his bill to make it much harder for local governments and institutions to remove monuments from government-owned spaces. “When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it’s a bad thing,” he said.
An ancestor of Creighton’s had served in Terry’s Texas Rangers, a Confederate cavalry regiment that played havoc with the Union Army in a number of battles—but never fought on Texas soil. An extravagant memorial to the regiment sits near the Capitol’s front steps. Creighton told the chamber that the monument reminded him daily of “that family history in law enforcement and the sacrifice” his ancestor made to keep Texas “safe and protected.” He appeared, that is, to have confused the military unit with the more-well-known Texas Rangers, a completely different organization. Moments like that make it difficult to shake the notion that it’s the revisionists who take history more seriously.
Former land commissioner Jerry Patterson, one of the state’s most prominent voices in defense of preserving Confederate monuments, could not, though, be accused of being unserious about history. A passionate amateur historian, Patterson recently helped launch a documentary project to tell the story of the 1918 Porvenir massacre, in which Texas Rangers and others gunned down fifteen unarmed Mexican villagers. Efforts to tell undertold stories, he said, have made the study of Texas history and the state itself a more vital, healthy place.
But some attempts to revise our history, Patterson said, “are not so good, in my opinion.” There are growing perceptions about the state’s past that he thinks are wrong and destabilizing, particularly the belief that the 1836 Revolution was waged to defend the institution of slavery. “You see it coming from the Raza Unida people, the Aztlán people,” he said, referring to Chicano activists. (As he noted in a subsequent conversation, the Raza Unida Party has been defunct since 1978.) “We have this positive interest in things in the past and this negative tendency to rewrite history, and both of those things are existing simultaneously.”
He believes that the “jihad,” as he calls it, against Confederate monuments threatens to expand beyond what well-meaning people intend—next, he fears, the activists will come for Bowie and Travis, both of whom were slaveholders. “You want to take down Lee’s monument? How about Lincoln?” he asked. “All these people were flawed. All these people were racists. They were white supremacists.” In the generational churn, he said, “we lose our history. We lose our balance, because we’ve let the whim of the prevailing opinion of the day overtake the facts of the past.”
Somewhat less controversial—though not universally so—is the effort to establish new monuments and memorials. “A friend and I were at Goliad in April,” TCU’s Sharpless said of a recent visit to one of the key sites of the Texas Revolution. “There’s a new marker and a statue of a Mexican woman who helped some of the Texas soldiers escape the massacre, [surrounded by a plaza maintained by the woman’s descendants]. You see this, and you realize that it’s happening at the ground level too. It’s not just us liberal academics. I think more people are saying, ‘Yeah, let’s look at the whole picture.’ ”
Brown University’s Martinez, who grew up in South Texas, said the first time she had any meaningful exposure to Tejano history came when she arrived in Rhode Island, about two thousand miles from where that history took place. But she notes that change is happening in Texas public schools too. The State Board of Education recently approved a Mexican American Studies course for use in high schools across the state, which advocates had been promoting for decades. “That gives me hope that people will get access to that history at an earlier age and introducing these histories to the public will make a change over the long term,” she said.
There’s also the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, perhaps the place where the greatest number of Texans—especially seventh-graders on field trips—come face-to-face with the state’s past. Located between the Capitol building and the University of Texas, the Bullock has long faced the uneasy task of pleasing the politicians who funded its creation while conveying the state’s story, warts and all. When it opened, in 2001, it was heavy on rah-rah patriotism, said Buenger—it was “the Fehrenbach position on Texas history,” with exhibits focused on ranching and oil rather than King Cotton, which dominated the state’s economy for most of its history and, until the advent of modern agricultural technology, required the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of slaves and tenant farmers.
But lately, the Bullock has been trying to do better. A major renovation of the museum’s first floor expanded the story it told about native tribes and colonization. There’s a clear disconnect between the new section and those upstairs, which tell a clipped and neatly packaged version of the Revolution and the Civil War. More updates are planned. “The work that the Bullock has been doing has just been incredible and amazing,” said Martinez, who helped the Bullock put on a major exhibition in 2016, “Life and Death on the Border, 1910–1920.” Earlier this year the museum organized a symposium called “Reverberations of Memory, Violence, and History” that also cast an eye on Ranger violence along the border.
Martinez’s attempts to raise public awareness of such episodes have also been assisted by the Undertold Marker Program at the Texas Historical Commission. For a long time, historical markers across Texas went up only with the approval of the THC and a county’s historical commission, whose members might rather some stories not be told. But the state is now erecting about twenty a year, sometimes overruling local opposition. Martinez has successfully applied for four, including one to mark the Porvenir massacre.
The Porvenir marker, like others secured through the program, had to overcome years of steadfast opposition from local interests. But at public events and lectures, Martinez says, she’s received profuse thanks from descendants of the victims of racist violence. To her surprise, she’s also been thanked by some descendants of Texas Rangers who have struggled to understand their ancestors’ participation in such violence and have appreciated the clarity Martinez brought.
These are baby steps forward, but they add up, as any historian will tell you. Even the Texas Capitol is starting to look a little bit different. In 2016, the year after Hale’s bill first failed, a monument to the history of African American Texans was quietly unveiled down the hill from those towering Confederate monuments. (That same day, a White Lives Matter rally took place yards away.) And earlier this year the Legislature agreed to take down one of the most egregiously fraudulent pro-Confederate tokens in the building, a plaque donated in 1959 by the “Children of the Confederacy” that claimed that it was important to “teach the truths of history,” one of which was that “the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”
When an African American lawmaker—specifically, Eric Johnson, who was recently elected mayor of Dallas—objected to the plaque in 2017, it seemed at first as if he had embarked on a quixotic mission. But last November, nearly a year after Johnson went public with his protest, Dan Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott gave their stamp of approval to the plaque’s removal. Abbott’s spokesperson had earlier said that the governor believed that “substantially inaccurate historical statements are not appropriate for permanent display in the Capitol building.” In January, the plaque was removed. The weight of history had won out.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Battling Over the Past.” Subscribe today.