At a symposium organized by the newly formed Alliance for Texas History in Fort Worth last weekend, University of Houston doctoral student Shine Trabucco, who is of Taos Pueblo and Quecha descent, began her talk by “acknowledging that we are on the ancestral lands of the Caddo, the Comanche, and the Kickapoo. We are just visitors and guests on Indigenous people’s land.” Later in the day, University of New Orleans professor Max Krochmal declared that “we are meeting on stolen land in a city built by enslaved Black people and exploited migrant labor.” Not to be outdone, University of North Texas professor Michael Phillips pointed out that the state of Texas was built by “exploiting the labor of enslaved people, Indigenous people, and poor whites.” 

Such acknowledgments have become a common preface to academic talks across the country in recent years. But they were also a way of distinguishing the Alliance for Texas History from the Texas State Historical Association—the powerful nonprofit organization of academic and lay historians that has dominated the discipline since its founding in 1897. In addition to sponsoring regular conferences, the TSHA publishes the Texas Almanac, the encyclopedic Handbook of Texas Online, and the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, one of the top journals in the field. It awards research fellowships and book prizes. For generations of historians, the TSHA was Texas history. 

The Alliance wants to end that monopoly. Founded in March by a group of prominent Texas historians who broke off from the TSHA—some defecting entirely, some maintaining a dual allegiance—the organization is dedicated to promoting what it regards as a more pluralistic and inclusive approach to history. “No one in our society is to be excluded or denigrated because of their gender, religious preference, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity,” the Alliance’s mission statement says. For anyone who has been paying attention to the internecine warfare roiling the TSHA in recent years, this declaration is a clear rebuke to TSHA executive director J.P. Bryan, a wealthy right-wing businessman who has complained that Texas historians were pushing a narrative “that demeans the Anglo efforts in settling the western part of the United States for the purpose of spreading freedoms for all.” 

Bryan, a descendant of Stephen F. Austin’s brother-in-law (and fellow slave owner) James Bryan, has long advocated for what might be called the heroic Anglo narrative of Texas history. “If you try to tell history, it’s exciting, it’s high adventure, it’s wonderful,” he enthused in 2015 when I interviewed him for the opening of the Bryan Museum in Galveston, which displays Bryan’s personal collection of more than 70,000 historical artifacts. “We’re not here to talk about what people can’t accomplish; we’re here to talk about the exceptional things that people can do.” (Later in the same interview, Bryan shared his suspicion that then-president Barack Obama was “given to the Islamic faith” and “a Muslim at heart.”) 

Bryan’s Walt Disney vision of Texas history is not widely shared among the TSHA’s academic historians, who have labored in recent decades to de-center the Anglo male perspective by including the voices of Native Americans, Tejanos, Blacks, and women. As this fuller history collided with the beliefs of the TSHA’s largely conservative donors, a schism grew within the organization between traditionalists and progressives. Traditionalists bridled at one example after another of what they considered “woke” nonsense. First the association adopted a diversity statement entitled “Healing Through History.” Then the TSHA’s chief historian, University of Texas at Austin professor Walter Buenger, told a reporter that the Alamo has often served as a “symbol of what it meant to be white.” The final straw appears to have come at the March 2023 board meeting, which began with an acknowledgement that the group was “meeting on the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island, the ancestral name for what is now called North America.” 

The traditionalist faction, led by Bryan, decided it was time to restore sanity. He accused the association of violating its bylaws, which require the board to be “balanced substantially” between academics and nonacademics. In recent years, academics had gained a slight majority, which Bryan believed to be the root of the infiltration of “wokeness.” He suggested adding former Texas Supreme Court justice Wallace Jefferson, a prominent Republican. Instead, TSHA members elected Corpus Christi high school history teacher Mary Jo O’Rear, who was not an academic, her backers argued, because she didn’t teach at a university. Bryan disagreed and filed a lawsuit against the association claiming that it was operating with an illegitimate board. He also sued the recently elected board president, Nancy Baker Jones, for $1 million in damages, claiming Jones had defamed him by saying he had assaulted a TSHA member. (At a March 2023 meeting of the association, Bryan stormed into the audience to confront a heckler. He denies committing assault.)

Bryan’s lawsuits paralyzed the TSHA for months. Hundreds of members, including several past presidents, signed a petition calling on Bryan to drop his legal action. But in September, running out of money to cover her legal expenses, Jones agreed to settle the lawsuit and step down as president. The settlement allowed Bryan to pick her replacement. He chose Ken Wise, a Republican state appellate judge. With Wise as president and Bryan as executive director, the traditionalists appeared to have won. 

But a historical organization is only as strong as its historians. The battle with Bryan left many of the state’s leading academics, who had been pillars of the association for decades, profoundly disillusioned. Buenger, the UT professor, resigned from his role as TSHA chief historian in January. “There were a contingent of people who were just sick of that fight,” recalled Benjamin H. Johnson, a U.S. history professor at Loyola University Chicago and a former TSHA board member. “Almost all of the scholars, whether they’re university professors or lay scholars or museum professionals, don’t want to have anything to do with Bryan and his crowd.”

Last fall, shortly after Bryan and Jones settled the lawsuit, Johnson polled TSHA members who had signed the petition about the possibility of forming a new Texas history organization. Of the approximately two hundred respondents, nearly 90 percent indicated their support. Soon talks began about creating what would become the Alliance for Texas History. Greg Cantrell, a Texas Christian University history professor and former TSHA president, agreed to serve as interim president, while author and lay historian Gary L. Pinkerton would serve as managing director. 

By the time the Alliance’s inaugural Fort Worth symposium rolled around, it had attracted more than four hundred dues-paying members. I met Cantrell and Pinkerton at the Friday night welcome ceremony, held at Vintage Rail, an event venue near the TCU campus, where dozens of professors, graduate students, and amateur historians were gathered inside a steel Quonset hut, drinking Sapporo and snacking on cheese plates. The relative modesty of the affair, one attendee argued, spoke to its integrity. “This is David versus Goliath,” Pinkerton told me. “I know someone who went to a recent TSHA event, and she said she’d never seen so much Gucci and Louis Vuitton. It’s not an academic organization anymore, and we are.” 

The Alliance’s one-day symposium got under way on the morning of April 28 in a stuffy, windowless auditorium in TCU’s Palko Hall. More than 150 history buffs packed into the room, leaving virtually no empty seats. After Cantrell gave the welcoming remarks, the attendees were treated to three sessions: “Writing Against the Master Narrative,” “Diverse Histories of Texas,” and “Getting Out the Word: Uses of Texas History.” The panels featured a diverse mix of professors and graduate students, academics and nonacademics, who spoke on topics including San Antonio’s traditional adobe architecture, the state’s history of LGBT activism, and an effort to digitize slave narratives collected by the Work Projects Administration in the thirties. The day ended with a salute to Buenger, the former TSHA chief historian, who was about to retire from teaching after a fifty-year career. Buenger was one of only two attendees to get a standing ovation from the crowd that day. The other was Nancy Baker Jones, the target of Bryan’s lawsuit and an Alliance member.

Many of the Alliance members I spoke to said they don’t see the organization as a replacement for the TSHA but as a more progressive alternative. With a reported 2,500 members and financial support from the state government, the TSHA isn’t going anywhere; on the same weekend that the Alliance was holding its inaugural conference, the TSHA hosted its own event, the annual San Jacinto Symposium, in Houston. (The TSHA did not respond to my request for their current number of members.) Several historians told me they are maintaining memberships in both groups. “Personally speaking, I think more Texas history is better than less,” said Wise, the Bryan-allied TSHA president. “I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what [the Alliance] does and maybe finding opportunities to work together.” 

But with many of the state’s top historians shifting their allegiance to the upstart group, the Alliance seems to have the wind at its back. It has already put out a call for submissions to its next symposium, scheduled for May 2025 in San Marcos, and there are plans to launch a new academic journal. Johnson, the Loyola University historian whose poll started it all, predicted that the Alliance will, in time, become the state’s principal organization of academic historians. “My guess is that the TSHA is going to look much more like the Daughters of the Republic of Texas—more of a celebratory heritage organization,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but they serve a different purpose.”