A popular joke in the Soviet Union went like this: “The future is certain. Only the past is unpredictable.” The quip poked fun at both the Communist party’s confidence that socialism would soon rule the world and the way that its leaders, such as Joseph Stalin, demanded frequent rewrites of history. Onetime allies of Stalin would be purged from the party and then airbrushed out of photos; after the execution of the head of the Soviet secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, his entry in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was pasted over with extra information about the Bering Sea.

That old Soviet joke has a new resonance in Texas, where the Legislature has launched a fresh effort to airbrush the past. Last year, state lawmakers—including every Republican in both chambers—voted to pass a bill establishing a panel called the “1836 Project,” named after the year the Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico and intended to “promote patriotic education and increase awareness of the Texas values.” After the bill became law, Governor Greg Abbott appointed a nine-member 1836 Project Advisory Committee to publish a summary of the project’s work and author a Texas history pamphlet to be distributed to all Texans when they receive driver’s licenses. Due to be completed by September 1, 2022, the pamphlet, according to the law, must describe Texas’s “founding and foundational principles” and how they have stimulated “boundless prosperity across the state.”

The Legislature modeled the 1836 initiative on former president Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which, in the closing weeks of the Trump administration, published an overview of American history meant to serve as a road map for school curricula across the country. The American Historical Association, the country’s oldest and largest group of professional historians, dismissed the 1776 Commission’s report as relying on “falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.” The backgrounds of the committee members of Texas’s 1836 Project, and a draft version of the pamphlet it plans to produce, indicate it will be similarly flawed.

To chair the 1836 Project, Abbott tasked Kevin Roberts, who holds a PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He served on Trump’s 1776 Commission and called its report an “excellent piece of scholarship.” Currently the president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., Roberts previously held the post of chief executive officer of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing group based in Austin and funded in large part by oil and gas interests. It advocates for, among many positions, privatization of education. Roberts declared at the first meeting of the committee in January that the 1836 Project would seek to proclaim that “the United States of America, and especially Texas, are places where we can live the dream of prosperity and liberty and flourishing better than anywhere else on Earth”—an assertion he dubbed a self-apparent “fact.”

The chair of the subcommittee in charge of drafting the pamphlet, Don Frazier, has similar ideological bearings. Frazier received his PhD in history from Texas Christian University, and he now directs the Texas Center at Schreiner University in Kerrville, an hour’s drive northwest of San Antonio. He’s authored several books of history that gloss over centuries of slavery in Texas and minimize its horrors. In the introduction to his 2015 book, Blood on the Bayou, for example, he passingly mentions what he calls “gossip” about brutal enslavers. He quotes selectively from interviews of formerly enslaved men and women to argue that some believed slavery “provided [them] a good life.” 

Frazier also founded the McWhiney History Education Group, named after his TCU mentor, the historian Grady McWhiney, who has been called the intellectual “godfather of . . . the neo-Confederate movement.” In the late 1990s, a professor Michael Hill, also a student of McWhiney, served as a fellow of the McWhiney Group. He established the League of the South, which advocates that Southern states should once again secede from the Union. McWhiney joined the League of the South, but Frazier told the Southern Poverty Law Center in a 2004 interview that the league turned toward racism just as his mentor began suffering from dementia.

Texas 1836 Committee Kevin Roberts
Kevin Roberts (right) with Greg Abbott. Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP
Texas 1836 Committee Don Frazier
Don Frazier. Ronald W. Erdrich/The Abilene Reporter-News via AP

Several other members of the advisory committee aren’t historians by training but have devoted their other work to sanitizing Texas history. The committee vice chair, Texas senator Brandon Creighton, a Republican from Conroe, sponsored the Senate version of the Texas bill banning the teaching in public schools of so-called critical race theory. (CRT is an academic framework for examining systemic racism, typically in college classes. It has not been taught in public schools in Texas, but right-wing activists have used the term loosely to refer to almost any teaching about the history of racial discrimination.)

Also on the panel is former Republican Texas land commissioner Jerry Patterson, who presided over the state takeover of management of the Alamo historical site from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Patterson has spent much of the last year criticizing the controversial book Forget the Alamo, which argues the Texas Revolution was motivated in large part by a desire to maintain the slave economy on which Texas had become dependent. Patterson has launched a website called 1836truth.com dedicated to debunking it.

Other advisors include:

  • Sherry Sylvester, a longtime aide to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick who managed his 2018 campaign and now serves as a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
  • Richard “Dick” Trabulsi Jr., owner of a liquor-store chain and financial backer of the conservative advocacy group Texans for Lawsuit Reform.
  • Robert Edison, a former social studies teacher from the Dallas Independent School District, the only African American on the panel.
  • Carolina Castillo Crimm, a professor emeritus of history at Sam Houston State University, the only Latina to serve as an adviser.

Roberts opened the committee’s January session by saying he wanted to solicit diverse “opinions” from Texans no matter their “race, language, or religion.” He called Texas history a “unifying ideal . . . especially true” for how fractured American politics is right now. But the meeting quickly devolved from discussion of shared ideals into complaints that ill-defined enemies had besieged Texas and distorted its past. “We are currently undergoing an attack on our history,” Sylvester said. “Texas has become a symbol for this attack, because there are so many things that we refuse to give up here. We refuse to give up our freedom. We refuse to give up our belief in prosperity and belief that everyone can have an opportunity—that everyone can win.” The 1836 Project, presumably, would ward off this assault from these unnamed opponents.

Indeed, the group’s pamphlet removes most of the blemishes of Texas history and ignores the stories of those who have often been left out of the record. Of the document’s 4,517 words, 108 are spent on the 13,000-plus years of Indigenous history before the arrival of Spanish conquerors. The Texas Revolution receives 601 words. Only 133 words cover segregation, and 50 are spared for the African American mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement.

Comparative word counts provide a crude measure of the advisory committee’s biases. A better measure can be found in what’s left unsaid. The pamphlet says of slavery, “Texas soon had a reputation. ‘Texas is heaven for men and dogs,’ the saying went, ‘but hell for women and oxen.’ This was doubly true for the enslaved.” No details are included about the lives of Texans held in bondage. Later, slavery is mentioned only as a complication that delayed annexation by the United States. The pamphlet never names any enslaved individuals, nor does it describe their fight for freedom.

Airbrushed from this account are stories such as those that Ben Simpson told interviewers in 1937 about how his enslaver force-marched him as a small child from Georgia to new land in Texas along with other captives and shot and killed his mother in front of him. Also missing are stories from other former slaves who recall a life of harsh sunup-to-sundown labor from childhood to old age, watching loved ones sold away, runaways ripped apart by dogs when caught, and enslaved women raped by masters. These stories are not “gossip” but lived tragedies that are included in all mainstream histories of Texas during slavery.

The pamphlet also doesn’t mention how Reconstruction-era white terrorist violence erased the civil liberties African Americans gained through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. According to the late Barry Crouch, a historian of the Reconstruction era in Texas, whites in the state murdered about one of every one hundred African American men between the ages of 15 and 49 from 1865 to 1868. The Ku Klux Klan murdered newly enfranchised voters, and there’s a story of one enraged white man with a sword chopping an African American woman in Huntsville in half when she dared celebrate her emancipation. The pamphlet grants only 42 words to the bloody tragedy of the era: “With the end of Reconstruction in 1876, when given an opportunity to overhaul its state constitution, pro-Southern white Texans responded by creating a weakened government while defending the concept of states’ rights as expressed in the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

The pamphlet not only erases atrocities, it also scrubs the history of dissenting political movements such as the left-wing Populists of the late nineteenth century. It provides no insights into the struggle for women’s suffrage and for Tejano civil rights, and it erases the existence of gay, bisexual, and trans Texans. By suggesting that the Texas story is one of relentless progress and by burying nearly all unpleasantness, the simplistic tale woven by the 1836 Project leads readers to believe that any advances in justice, always described in passive voice, just happened, as if showered upon Texas soil by invisible benevolent forces. The pamphlet’s crafters want the public to forget that most progress in the state and the nation—from rural electrification to voting rights for women and minorities—has been won by the hard and dangerous work of activists and sympathetic politicians. 

In some ways, the 1836 Project, and the restrictions on teaching about race in schools, aren’t anything new in Texas. There’s a long history in the state of attempts to bend the past to conform to political agendas. In 1918, Annie Webb Blanton, who called herself loyal to the “old South,” became the first woman elected to a statewide office as the superintendent of public instruction. She belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which lobbied to ban textbooks it believed were too critical of the South. One chief historian of the United Daughters, Laura Martin Rose, authored a book praising the Ku Klux Klan, and in 1913 the UDC campaigned for its use in public schools. Blanton leveraged her power to ensure the “Lost Cause” orthodoxy was taught in Texas classrooms and even tried to ban bilingualism in schools along the state’s southern border.

In the 1950s, an elementary school textbook, Texas, taught children that under slavery, breakfast was brought to the enslaved in the fields, while nights were filled with family time and dancing. By the 1970s, activists around the country began to discover the power that Texas, the second-biggest buyer of school textbooks in the nation after California, wields over how history is taught in the entire United States and sought to dictate what its lessons would be.

More recently, the right has attacked as “revisionist” efforts to include previously silenced voices in the curriculum. In 2010, conservatives on the State Board of Education thwarted efforts to include more Tejano history in the state curriculum standards and guided Texas teachers to encourage skepticism that the nation’s founders intended there to be a separation of church and state. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the SBOE and a dentist who advocated for creationism, led conservatives on the board in a campaign to reverse what they saw as creeping political correctness in the schoolhouse. “We are adding balance,” he said. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Good history, in fact, is always revisionist. Talented and honest scholars rewrite their accounts and modify their interpretations of the past as new documents are found, as new archaeological sites are unearthed, and as previously ignored voices emerge to enrich the tapestry of understanding. As history becomes more inclusive, the past is analyzed in new, sometimes startling ways. Fresh interpretations of events, both well-known and obscure, are published, debated, and challenged. Historians typically find these innovative looks at old events intellectually stimulating. Those emotionally invested in the old stories, however, often find such “revisionism” disturbing, heretical, and evidence of disloyalty to state and country. The 1836 Project follows in the long tradition of backlash.

Texas cannot tackle its problems unless we bravely and honestly excavate the past for experience and wisdom instead of dulling our senses with self-serving fables. The sanitized and whitewashed history state leaders wish to dispense to us along with our driver’s licenses is nothing more than a deceitful propaganda effort that discredits the history profession. More important, it harms the millions in this state who share so unequally in its riches and will be left with no memories of how we got here. Texans deserve to see themselves in role models from the past, learn the vital lessons they have to offer, and confront some of the bitter realities of today.

Dr. Leah LaGrone is a scholar on debates over minimum wages for women and the status of sex workers in early twentieth-century Texas. She is an assistant professor of history and public history director at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.  

Dr. Michael Phillips is a scholar of race relations, a senior research fellow at Southern Methodist University, and the author of White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001.