Another category of institutions that also require a hard look, now: taxpayer-funded museums that put forth distorted views of U.S. history and traffic in the same racial injustice as memorials to Southern commanders.
One such museum is the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco. Opened in 1968, the museum has hewn to a singular mission: to “preserve the history and inspire appreciation of the Texas Rangers.”
The 197 years of Rangers history provide ample material for mythmaking. Anglo settlers who sought to tame the wild and violent Lone Star frontier depended mightily on the Rangers, many of whom served with fortitude and valor. It has been argued that without them, Texas would not be Texas.
The broader reality begs for myth puncturing. As I document in my book, “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers,” the Rangers executed hundreds of Mexican Americans whose only offense was to possess land the Anglos wanted. For a time, the Rangers were as feared along the Mexican border as the Ku Klux Klan was in the Deep South. They also conspired to quash the civil rights of Black citizens and, in 1956, enforced illegal segregation of Texas schools.
But you wouldn’t learn that at the museum in Waco, which drew 94,306 visitors last year. There, Ranger heroics dominate. Hector Sabido, the lone Hispanic on the Waco City Council, said the current collection is woefully one-sided and incomplete. “The entire history needs to be told,” he said, “both the good and bad parts.”
The city of Waco owns the museum and uses tax dollars to cover its operating losses. Waco is, on the whole, a poor place. The city’s poverty rate tops 26 percent, more than twice the national figure. What’s more, about 54 percent of its residents are Black or Hispanic. As they pay their taxes, they finance a shrine to men who oppressed and slaughtered their forebears.
This is a scandal, but one that could soon be mitigated. Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said in July that the city will undertake a comprehensive review of the museum with a goal of providing “a fair, balanced, and unbiased view of Texas Ranger history.”
More than half a century after it opened, the museum will endeavor to deal fairly with the Rangers’ victims, he said, and the city’s Black and Hispanic residents. “We have a duty to learn and understand the history of this organization and its impact on people of color,” the mayor wrote to me in an email.
Waco isn’t the only location that merits fresh scrutiny. In 2018, Smithsonian Magazine and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute found that over the previous decade, American taxpayers coughed up at least $40 million for Confederate statues, museums, monuments, parks, libraries and heritage associations.
For example, the A.H. Stephens State Park in Crawfordville, Ga., features the preserved home of the former vice president of the Confederacy. “The Negro is not equal to the white man,” Stephens famously said in 1861. “Slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” Since 2011, the Smithsonian determined, taxpayers have given the site more than $1 million.
Similarly, Beauvoir, the last home and presidential library of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Biloxi, Miss., is privately owned but has received millions of dollars in state and federal funding. Some of the presentations at Beauvoir, the Smithsonian noted, celebrate Confederates and promote the idea that slavery was physically and mentally beneficial to the enslaved.
The national group United for Libraries announced in June it was removing its Literary Landmark designation for Beauvoir because of “racist and wrong Lost Cause ideology” promulgated there.
That’s a small but significant step, and perhaps it will push state and local officials across the South into action. They should force change at these museums and monuments, or cut off public funding.
Here’s one suggestion: The potential revamping of the Waco museum could start by showcasing an old video in a gallery long ago named for the late Homer Garrison Jr.
Known as Col. Garrison, he served as the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety from 1938 to 1968. As such, he was the chief Ranger. Garrison was widely praised for turning the Rangers into a modern, professional law enforcement agency. But no Black people, Hispanics or women became Rangers during his tenure.
Recently, Dallas journalist Daniel Kusner posted on YouTube a video unearthed from state archives. It shows two White men performing in blackface at a 1962 in-house talent show for the public safety department.
In the video, the two performers crack a joke about the lack of Black Rangers. “Ain’t got none,” one of them says. That minstrel showman speaking in dialect is none other than Garrison himself.
The department has confirmed the video’s authenticity. “Although this happened nearly six decades ago,” said a statement from the communications office, “it does not excuse the behavior and is antithetical to the core values of the department.”
It’s embarrassing and outrageous, but it is our past. And it belongs in a museum that claims to preserve history, especially one paid for by the very people who have felt the rough hand of racism. Give Americans the whole story, or — like those vanquished rebel statues — go away.