The annual business meeting for the Texas State Historical Association is usually a staid affair. Members and leaders of the association—a mix of professional historians, custodians of museums and historical sites, and amateur history buffs—indulge in discussion of routine financial matters and listen to presentations on the organization’s ongoing work. “Usually, everyone’s looking at their watch, everybody wants a snack, everybody’s gotta pee,” said Michelle Haas, who publishes historical documents and books and analyzes historical issues online for a nonprofit organization she runs, the Texas History Trust. 

But in early March, during the group’s annual meeting, held this year at the El Paso Civic Center, attendees in the packed ballroom were simmering. For months, as state lawmakers had held contentious debates about how history should be taught in schools, members and leaders of TSHA had been going back and forth on whether the association was presenting a balanced account of Texas history in the educational literature it produces. Should it devote more time to the heroics of Texans fighting for liberty from Mexico, or offer a more scathing reflection on the key figures’ desire to preserve slavery?

Some members felt that progressive historians in TSHA had gone too far, and that “woke ideology” was infecting the organization. In recent years, “Healing Through History” has become the title of the association’s official diversity statement. As the 127th annual meeting began in El Paso, a February 2022 board resolution that came from the floor and was pushed by academic board members made clear that the association would “acknowledge that we are meeting on the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island, the ancestral name for what now is called North America.” 

The drama came to a head during a vote on who would fill open seats on TSHA’s board. The organization formed in 1897 to research and promote Texas’s history, and it has considerable influence over how that history is portrayed in public institutions. The association’s bylaws stipulate that the board must be “balanced substantially between these two groups”—referring to academics (usually history professors with PhDs) and nonacademics, who are often lay historians from the business and political worlds.

The TSHA committee responsible for a nomination to a vacant seat had put forth an academic to fill it, which would have made the balance 12–8 in favor of academics. TSHA backers of a more traditionalist history of Texas (think “Remember the Alamo!”) were upset because they said the meeting’s board election was about to throw the organization’s governance out of whack, in violation of its bylaws. Many in that camp felt that academics often promoted a more progressive version of Texas history that unduly questioned the motives of Texas revolutionaries and overemphasized the shortcomings of other historical figures and groups: for example, blaming Texas Rangers in general for the racist and murderous acts of some of that group’s members, especially during its earlier days.

Executive director J. P. Bryan Jr.—a former TSHA president whose ancestor helped found the association and who leans toward the more traditional take on Texas history—had a wild card to play at the meeting. Bryan told the voting members in attendance that instead of just considering the committee-anointed academic nominee, they should consider a nomination from the floor of Wallace Jefferson, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and a nonacademic, to maintain balance. Jefferson, who is Black, also would help advance the association’s diversity goals.

The academics in the crowd weren’t having it. “Is he even a member?” someone shouted from the audience. (The organization’s bylaws do not require that board members must first be TSHA members.) Bryan replied, “I believe he is a member and has agreed to serve if elected,” an answer that didn’t satisfy the questioner. “You believe he’s a member? You don’t know?” Murmurs erupted in the audience, some attendees shook their heads, and one blurted out, “What the hell?”

Later another academic yelled across the room at Bryan, “Next time you nominate someone, at least make sure they’re a member!” According to accounts from attendees, Bryan stormed into the audience seats, confronted someone he thought was the heckler, and yelled, “Do you have something to say to me?” He picked the wrong person, and several professors witnessing the scene complained to the TSHA board president, Nancy Baker Jones, about Bryan’s behavior. (Bryan acknowledged he had confronted the wrong person but denied that he yelled and said he apologized to those around him upon learning of his error.)

“It was the strangest s— I have ever seen,” said Haas of the whole meeting. “People were seriously standing up and yelling like it was the British freaking parliament.”

Bryan’s effort to add Jefferson to the board ultimately failed, with the seat going to an academic, Mary Jo O’Rear, a longtime history teacher in Corpus Christi ISD schools and later an adjunct professor at Texas A&M–Kingsville. That left a vocal cadre of members upset that the organization was violating its bylaws. “It’s just not the way the organization was designed, and I think it’s not healthy,” Bryan said. “We need the professional academics’ input. They’re the ones that are, in theory, doing the research all the time, but there are a lot of good nonacademic historians out there too. I want to hear what they’ve got to say. And I want them to feel welcome in our organization.”

Bryan also knew what an unbalanced board meant for him personally. His job was on the line. The board brought him in as an unpaid volunteer executive director last fall to steer TSHA toward financial health. Membership had plummeted from a high of 5,000 in the past decade to the current 2,500, owing to what some traditionalist members identify as attacks on beloved Texas figures, or to what progressive members identify as a failure to engage young Texans. Regardless of the cause, many recognized Bryan’s business acumen (he has been an executive at several oil corporations) and connections to wealthy donors as assets for rejuvenating the association. But early in his tenure, many academic board members questioned his authority to make certain staffing and publishing decisions. Indeed, in late April, Jones, the board president, called an emergency, in-person-only board meeting in San Marcos to discuss the executive director’s performance and presumably terminate him if she got enough votes. A once sleepy organization was about to be thrown into turmoil. 

The squabble is not merely one concerning a small group of nerdy historians. TSHA has considerable sway over the public’s perception of Texas history and what’s taught in schools. It helps design curricula and educational workshops for K–12 teachers and students. The books Texans find at state park or historic site gift shops are often published by TSHA. The association’s Handbook of Texas Online is the go-to source for quick articles on items as diverse as the Battle of San Jacinto, the origins of various small towns, the history of the Spoetzl Brewery, and all manner of other places and events in Texas culture and history. Given its influence, TSHA is a major front in the battle over Texas history.  

J. P. Bryan doesn’t view himself as an anti-“woke” crusader. Even his critics acknowledge his passion for history: he’s restored historic buildings, including the Gage Hotel, in Marathon, and the Galveston Orphans’ Home. In the latter institution, he created the Bryan Museum, displaying the breadth of Texas history with some 70,000 items he acquired through the fortune he made in the oil and gas business. But Bryan says he wants to make sure the association presents historical context when looking at the actions and beliefs of famous Texans and that their “high adventures and enduring inspiration” not be purged from TSHA’s published works. He made his philosophy and position clear in a welcome letter published in the annual meeting’s program guide, quoting an unknown poet:

“When a land forgets its legends,
Sees but falsehoods in the past,
When a nation views its sires
In the light of fools and liars—
’Tis a sign of its decline,
And its glories cannot last.
Branches that but blight their roots
Yield no sap for lasting fruit.” 

Underneath the poem, Bryan stated that his intent is “to see that the above statement of possibility does not become reality in the teaching of Texas history.”

When Bryan became a target of the progressive members of TSHA, those in his camp launched a counteroffensive to get rid of TSHA’s chief historian, Walter Buenger, a progressive. Buenger, a University of Texas history professor who declined a request for an interview, has drawn the ire of more traditional historians and history buffs for his controversial statements to reporters. He infamously called the Alamo a “symbol of what it meant to be white” when Donald Trump visited the landmark and has said that traditional history “undergirds white supremacy.” Buenger’s five-year contract as chief historian—a joint project of TSHA and the University of Texas—expired last year. Critics argue that there’s been no movement to evaluate him or consider a replacement while he continues to draw a salary of at least $150,000 a year from the university, as well as additional research compensation from UT for his TSHA role.

For relief, the TSHA traditionalists turned to allies in the Texas Legislature. Former Texas land commissioner and TSHA member Jerry Patterson, who said he thinks the association is tilting too far toward those vilifying the state’s historical figures, drafted a rider to be attached to appropriations bills. If it passes, it could kill a significant source of TSHA funding—$480,000 biannually from the Texas Historical Commission, the state agency responsible for historic preservation—which the organization uses to publish the popular Texas Almanac. Patterson says he has gotten agreement from two key state House and Senate budget writers to make that funding conditional on the association following its bylaws with respect to the balance of academic versus nonacademic board members. “Being an activist and a historian are mutually exclusive endeavors,” he said. “Too many on the TSHA board are full-time activists masquerading as historians.” 

Bryan said before the latest brouhaha, he would have considered it unthinkable to agree with someone going after a large chunk of TSHA’s funding. But now he’s changed his tune. “I would not want them to give it to TSHA if it’s only going to present one side of Texas history. And that’s what’s happening now, and the board isn’t following its bylaws.”

It’s clear that outside influences also are fueling the debate at TSHA. Patterson sits on the state’s 1836 Project Advisory Committee—a group formed by the Texas Legislature last session to communicate the “exceptional” history of Texas to its students and citizens. He has also made it his mission to refute what he calls faulty facts cited in the controversial book Forget the Alamo, which makes a case that protecting slavery was the main motivation of key leaders of the Texas Revolution. The Legislature has also entwined itself in debates about the teaching of history. In April, the state Senate passed a bill that would ban the teaching of critical race theory, a college-level framework for examining systemic racism, at public universities. That bill follows one that passed in the last session to ban the teaching of CRT in K–12 public education—even though no such schools in Texas taught CRT. Simultaneously, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is pushing a bill to end tenure in public higher education because he believes professors are indoctrinating college students in leftist beliefs. Meanwhile, at the local level, parents have taken up the cause, creating an uproar over supposed CRT in K–12 instruction and objecting to the teaching of issues around gender.

What’s odd about the TSHA conflict is that everyone—on both sides of the debate—says they want the same thing: a balanced representation of Texas history, from the glorious to the despicable. The definition of “balance” appears to be the rub. Jeffrey Littlejohn, who chairs the TSHA Membership Committee and teaches history at Sam Houston State University, says the traditionalists’ view of history that state leaders are pushing is outdated. “They love the heroes, the Texas Rangers, the white demigods of the Texas past, and they’re mad because other historians want to talk about people who have been enslaved, Native American removal, the LGBTQ community, and African American and Hispanic voting rights.”

Haas, the history publisher and a self-described “provocateur” who posts videos on her website  titled “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Marxists” and “Woke Education Ruins Texas Kids,” sees it differently. She said TSHA’s annual meeting used to have more sessions about characters and places, but now the public is turned off from attending “because every session is, you know, like underwater lesbian basket weaving and why you’re an oppressor.”

Usually the debates between differing visions of Texas history are academic. But in TSHA, they will have immediate consequences. On May 1, about a dozen board members were able to make it to San Marcos for the emergency meeting called by Jones, who declined multiple requests for an interview, to evaluate Bryan and possibly fire him. As members waited for lunch to be served at the Hilton Garden Inn, several members looked at their phones and noticed they had an email informing them that a state district court judge in Galveston had issued a temporary restraining order barring them from meeting. 

Bryan had filed a lawsuit against Jones and TSHA alleging that the board was operating outside its authority and could not act on any business because it was violating its bylaws. The petition also claimed Jones had slandered and libeled Bryan and noted that he was seeking as much as $1 million in damages. The petition included references to allegedly defamatory emails sent by Jones and stated, “Among other things she has falsely accused him of assaulting people all focused in her effort to fabricate a basis to attack Mr. Bryan”—apparently in reference to the encounter Bryan had with an audience member at the annual meeting. Bryan’s lawsuit asked for an immediate hearing on a request for a temporary restraining order against board action, and shortly before the meeting on May 1, district court judge Kerry Neves granted the order. Jones halted the meeting, and Bryan’s job was safe, at least until the next hearing, tentatively scheduled for late May, when Neves will determine whether to maintain the restraining order.

The members who showed up expecting to fire Bryan had plenty of time to discuss next steps; it took two hours for their lunch sandwiches to arrive. (Rumor was that the bread had been baked wrong.) The nonmeeting was a disappointing resolution for many, but some took solace in the Hilton Garden Inn comping their meals.