The annual business meeting of 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—come to discuss 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everyone’s looking at their watch, everybody wants a snack, everybody’s gotta pee,” said Michelle Haas, who publishes historical documents and books and runs a nonprofit organization, the Texas History Trust.
But in early March, during the 127th annual meeting, held at the El Paso convention center, the packed ballroom was 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 space to the heroics of Texans who fought for liberty from Mexico or offer a more scathing reflection on the key figures’ desire to preserve slavery?
Some 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. The meeting began, in accordance with a February 2022 board resolution, with an acknowledgment that “we are meeting on the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island, the ancestral name for what now is called North America.”
The debate came to a head during a vote on who would fill open seats on TSHA’s board. Formed in 1897 to research and promote Texas’s history, TSHA 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 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 a former professor. If that nominee were considered an “academic,” that 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 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 version of Texas history that unduly questioned the motives of Texas revolutionaries and overemphasized the shortcomings of other historical figures and institutions: 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 with an ancestor who helped found the association—leans toward the more traditional take on Texas history and had a wild card to play at the meeting. Bryan told the voting members in attendance that instead of the committee-anointed nominee, they should consider appointing Wallace Jefferson, a former Texas Supreme Court justice (and nonacademic), to maintain balance. Jefferson, who is Black, would also 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 nominees 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 called across the room to Bryan, “Next time you nominate someone, at least make sure they’re a member!” According to accounts from attendees, Bryan stormed into the audience, confronted someone he thought was the heckler, and yelled, “Do you have anything else to say to me?” He picked the wrong person, and several professors who witnessed the scene complained to the TSHA board president, Nancy Baker Jones, about his behavior. (Bryan acknowledged that he had confronted a different member than he meant to, but he denied yelling and said he had apologized 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 bid to add Jefferson to the board ultimately failed, with the seat going to Mary Jo O’Rear, a longtime history teacher in Corpus Christi ISD 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 on a $1 salary as executive director last fall to shore up TSHA’s finances. Membership had plummeted from a high of 5,000 in the past decade to the current 2,500, perhaps owing to what some traditionalist members identify as attacks on beloved Texas figures or to what progressive members insist is a failure to engage young Texans.
Many on both sides recognize 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 some academic board members questioned his authority to make certain staffing and publishing decisions. In late April, Jones, the board president, called an emergency, in-person-only board meeting in San Marcos to discuss Bryan’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 helps design curricula and educational workshops for K–12 teachers and students. The books Texans find at state park or historical-site gift shops are often published by TSHA. The association’s Handbook of Texas Online is the go-to source for quick articles on topics 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 antiwoke 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 which 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 that 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 old chestnut by 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 wrote that one of his goals is “to see that the above statement of possibility does not become reality in the teaching of Texas history.”
When progressive members of TSHA made a target of Bryan, those in his camp launched a counteroffensive to get rid of TSHA’s chief historian, Walter Buenger, a progressive. Buenger, a University of Texas professor, has drawn the ire of more-traditional historians and history buffs for some of his statements to reporters. He famously called the Alamo a “symbol of what it meant to be white” and has said that the standard Texas narrative “undergirds white supremacy.” Buenger began his position as chief historian in 2017, as a joint appointee of TSHA and UT, and he recently submitted notice that he will retire from both positions in August 2024. But critics argue that his role should have been evaluated last year and that there’s been no movement to consider a replacement.
Buenger wouldn’t comment on the controversy at the association, other than to outline how he viewed his role as an academic on the board. “There are three interrelated concepts that I have tried to focus on over a more than
forty-year career, and they’re sort of summarized in three words: dignity, honesty, and accuracy,” he said. Buenger explained that all groups have a right to have their stories included in the state’s historical record, and that the association needs to be honest and accurate about the role of slavery and other “warts” in the formation of the Republic of Texas.
For relief, the TSHA traditionalists turned to allies in the Texas Legislature. Former Texas land commissioner and current TSHA member Jerry Patterson, who said he thinks the association is tilting too far toward those vilifying the state’s historical figures, sent a draft rider to legislators to be attached to appropriations bills. It would have killed a significant source of TSHA funding—$480,000 every two years from the Texas Historical Commission, the state agency responsible for historical preservation—which the organization uses to publish the popular Texas Almanac. Patterson asked two key state House and Senate budget writers to make that funding conditional on the association following its bylaws on 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.” The budget bill passed, however, without the rider.
Bryan said that 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 understand them not wanting to give it to TSHA if it’s only going to present one side of Texas history. 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 in 2021 to communicate the “exceptional” history of Texas to its schoolchildren and other residents. He also has made it his mission to refute what he calls faulty facts cited in the 2021 book Forget the Alamo, which makes a case that protecting slavery was the main motivation of key leaders of the Texas Revolution.
This spring, the Legislature 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, which stalled in the House, followed one that passed in 2021 to ban the teaching of CRT in K–12 public education—even though no such schools in Texas taught CRT. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick also pushed a bill in the Senate to end tenure in public higher education because he believes professors are indoctrinating college students in leftist beliefs. His counterparts in the House changed the bill to keep tenure intact but with requirements for more reviews of faculty.
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 who posts videos and articles 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 those holding differing visions of Texas history are theoretical. But in TSHA, they will have immediate consequences. On May 1 about a dozen board members made 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 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 that Jones had slandered and libeled Bryan, noted that he was seeking as much as $1 million in damages, and included references to allegedly defamatory emails sent by Jones. “Among other things, she has falsely accused him of assaulting people, all focused in her effort to fabricate a basis to attack Mr. Bryan,” it stated, 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. A temporary injunction resulting from a second hearing, on May 30, stopped the board from convening any further meetings until the parties go to a trial scheduled for September 11.
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, holding up delivery.) The nonmeeting was a disappointing resolution for many, but some took solace in the Hilton Garden Inn’s comping of their meals.
Rob D’Amico is a journalist who lives in Shafter.
This article appeared in the July 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Come and Rewrite It.” It originally published online on May 11, 2023, and has since been updated. Subscribe today.