Whitewashing Texas History

Houston billionaire J.P. Bryan has staged a "palace coup" at the Texas State Historical Association with a plan to remove from the influential Handbook of Texas details of the state's history of racial violence. I interview Texas historian Benjamin H. Johnson to find out what's going on.

Whitewashing Texas History

Conservatives in America are waging a war on truth, on democracy, and on decency.

Instead of valuing institutions the way you might expect "conservatives" would, they are trying to corrupt and control them in ways that elevate a white Christian fantasy about the world, while silencing, even erasing, the stories of those they don't like or approve of.

The plan has been unfolding for decades and the results are now evident. Tax breaks for the rich have allowed millionaires and billionaires to acquire judges and politicians at an increasingly rapid pace, especially since the passage of Citizen's United and the abandonment of the Voting Rights Act.

With many non-white and young voters now being openly discriminated against—and many maps so gerrymandered—in many states it's now impossible for a simple majority of voters to reject unwanted Republican control. Even "red" states smart enough to elect Democratic Governors are now finding out the GOP's undemocratic supermajorities are enough to override a popular Governor's veto.

The war on education is, of course, accelerating too. And I've written extensively about the vicious, unrelenting attacks of dark-money funded groups like the lying, hypocritical Moms for Liberty.

But God-unfearing conservatives are not stopping with the bedevilment of schools and colleges, as an unfolding drama at the Texas State Historical Association goes to prove.

"An assault on honest history"

I learned of this latest assault on history via a Twitter thread from historian and author Benjamin H. Johnson that began with a tweet linking to this article from The Texas Observer.

The gist of the story: A white billionaire is looking to seize control of the 126-year-old Texas State Historical Association in ways that will "unravel the TSHA and muzzle historians, especially those of color."

The billionaire in question—a retired Houston oilman named J.P. Bryan—is open in his intent, recently telling the Galveston Daily News that he thinks telling the true history of Texas, "demeans the Anglo efforts in settling the western part of the United States for the purpose of spreading freedoms for all."

It's a messy situation. But guess what? After failing to get his own candidate elected to the organization’s board in March, Bryan has found a friendly Texas judge to help him.  

Judge Kerry Neves of the 10th District Court in Galveston on Monday granted Bryan’s request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Nancy Baker Jones, president of the Texas State Historical Association.

By naming THSA President Nancy Baker Jones in his suit—which he says "will determine the future of the way the history of Texas is written"—he's also exposing Baker Jones to the possibility of harassment and the expense of legal costs. (A GoFundMe has been set up to help her with that.)

To get a more complete view of the situation, I reached out to Benjamin H. Johnson, who is a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.  A former TSHA board member, Johnson wrote Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans and Bordertown: the Odyssey of An American Place. He is also a member of Refusing to Forget, a public history project that commemorates 1910s border violence and its enduring legacies.

Here's what Johnson told me:

Q&A with Benjamin H. Johnson

We hear a lot about attacks on history at schools and colleges. What's happening at the Texas State Historical Association?

Interim Executive Director J.P. Bryan has filed suit against the organization and its President, Nancy Baker Jones. The suit seeks hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages from Jones and the reconstitution of the organization’s board by the court. The board is currently precluded from meeting by an injunction that was delivered just as it convened a meeting in early May to discuss limiting Bryan’s power or possibly dismissing him. Bryan has repeatedly framed the dispute in terms of the history wars, proclaiming his desire to lift up “heroic” rather than critical accounts of Texas history. Bryan, a longtime financial supporter and board member of the TSHA, was appointed interim Executive Director last year, taking no salary and promising to restore the organization to financial health.  So it’s kind of a palace coup.

The Texas State Historical Association has been around since 1897. How has it traditionally operated?

It’s an interesting hybrid of academic and lay historians, with a board comprised of both and a presidency that alternates between the two. Some board members are there because they give money, guidance, political connections; others offer labor and academic expertise—submitting articles or handbook entries, writing a peer or book review, getting colleagues to submit conference panels. Not flashy but essential. A “Chief Historian” supported by a chair at UT-Austin oversees publications, most importantly the Southwestern Historical Quarterly and the essential reference work, The Handbook of Texas. The Executive Director oversees operations of the organization, including an annual conference and the allocation of numerous awards and grants to support the study and teaching of Texas history.

One man buying the right to control the narrative. To me, it sounds like a smaller, more local version of Elon Musk buying Twitter to destroy the 'woke mind virus.' Who gets hurt by this?

Honestly, a lot of Bryan’s hopes are misplaced. The TSHA can’t control what books authors write about Texas history or how it is taught. Academics and serious lay historians spend years doing research and writing, and in the end there is little that an organization can do to shape those stories. Even if he used the TSHA as a platform for his celebratory versions of Texas history, they won’t have much influence or use in classrooms without the larger research base and credibility that the wider academic community has.

But he and his allies could gut the organization’s publications, and especially cull the Handbook, which is widely used and whose contents are basically cannibalized for countless Wikipedia entries, of information about subjects like racial violence. And they could decimate the journal, which is the key publication for scholarship on Texas history. It takes decades if not generations to build up organizations like the TSHA, but they can be destroyed in a few years. And of course Nancy Baker Jones could be hurt by incurring enormous legal bills, and I can only assume that her work and life are seriously disrupted by being targeted like this.

What are the specifics of the lawsuit?

The ostensible basis of departure for the suit is the allegation that Jones and a majority of the board violated the bylaws by improperly categorizing a new board member as a lay person. But that appointee is reasonably considered a lay person and nobody involved thinks that this is the real issue. It’s a really bizarre case because essentially the TSHA is suing itself. Bryan has the money to afford to do things most of us can’t, like hiring attorneys to litigate a spurious lawsuit in front of a judge to whose campaigns he has donated. What’s chilling to me is that Jones has been personally targeted, and that the board literally cannot do its job now because of a court order.

How does this fit into the broader attacks on history, books and education? Where does it all end if we don't fight back?

Mostly this is of a piece with the bans on critical race theory, teaching the 1619 Project, and such. Bryan and his allies complain about the same kinds of histories, especially of racial inequality. They keep mentioning how outrageous it is that Walter Buenger, the current Chief Historian, told a reporter that the Alamo has been used as a symbol of white supremacy after Trump’s 2021 speech there. The overwhelming majority of us who study and teach about Texas history see nothing objectionable in that claim, and in any event, under Buenger’s guidance, the Quarterly publishes a wide range of excellent articles and reviews. But it just seems to send Bryan and colleagues into conniptions that somebody associated the TSHA would say that. And this is all happening as the Texas legislature considers bills banning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work and tenure at public universities.

This case does seem like a twist on the general history debates in two regards. For one thing, these people know each other and have worked together for years, in some case decades. So this dispute is not just people yelling at one another on editorial pages or in Congress, it’s a rupture between people who deeply care about Texas history and have spent much of their adult lives supporting its study. That shared commitment is apparently no longer enough. Second is the striking precedent of an individual who took on an uncompensated position as the organization’s president, after years of service, being individually sued. I think conservative donors like Bryan feel emboldened not just to override institutions in terms of who they hire – as happened at UNC with Nikole Hannah-Jones – but to also go after them financially and try to seize control of the organizations they work with.

What can people do to help right now?

Donating to Jones’ defense fund is one way. You can also sign this petition. If you study or teach history, by all means join the TSHA and/or other professional organizations and fight for their integrity. More generally, I’m reminded of historian Timothy Snyder’s insistence that healthy institutions, which have purposes and reach that go beyond any individual, “help us to preserve decency” and his advice to “choose an institution you care about and take its side.”

Follow Benjamin H. Johnson on Twitter: @BenjaminHJohns1

Follow Refusing to Forget: @Refusing2Forget

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