The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bright side of a bad Texas history bill? It’s too late to whitewash the past.

Texas lawmakers are trying to tell teachers how to teach history.

A graduate poses for family photos in the rotunda at the State Capitol, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Austin, Texas. The Texas Legislature closed out its regular session Monday, but are expected to return for a special session after Texas Democrats blocked one of the nation's most restrictive new voting laws with a walkout. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Texas legislature passed a bill that aims to limit how teachers discuss race and violence in the state’s history. House Bill 3979 presents teachers of social studies in public schools with a long list of prohibitions, which include “giving deference to any one perspective,” or introducing the idea that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” The bill prevents schools from working with any organization that engages in lobbying or “social or public policy advocacy” in curricular development, teacher training, student internships or service learning.

Historians and other educators have protested that such measures will gravely harm teachers’ ability to meaningfully address the American past with students. This fight exemplifies how 2021 is a dangerous moment for scholars, educators and students alike, as states like Texas work to roll back academic freedoms.

But the Texas bill and other aggressive measures may also be signs that whitewashed histories are fading in relevance. Indeed, the teaching and public presentation of Texas history has become much more honest and inclusive in recent years. Scholars, teachers and museums have made great strides in incorporating not only Black, Latino and Indigenous histories, but also in addressing racial violence and other forms of White supremacy in the state’s history. The Texas legislation may end up being a rearguard action in a battle already lost for the hearts and minds of a new generation.

Thanks to concerted, decades-long efforts in public education and mass media, the state's history is a significant aspect of Texans’ identity. Every Texan has been admonished countless times to “Remember the Alamo!” through two years of mandatory Texas history (in fourth and seventh grades) and popular culture. San Antonio, where the Alamo is located and the most Mexican American large city in Texas, annually celebrates “Fiesta,” a 10-day party commemorating Mexico’s loss of Texas in 1836. Throughout the state, over 16,000 state historical markers tell a largely celebratory, and thoroughly whitewashed, story of Texas’s origins and development.

This obsession with “Texas history” as a central component of being Texan coalesced at the same time that the “Lost Cause” ideology shored up White Southern identity in the 1890s. Only in the early 20th century did the Alamo mission become “the Shrine of Texas Liberty”; until then it had fallen into disrepair and was used as a warehouse.

Starting in 1905, however, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a lineal descendant group styled after the Daughters of the American Revolution, began using the site to shape Texans’ understanding of the past. They maintained the location and portrayed the 1836 battle as a noble sacrifice for freedom led and accomplished by White, Anglo Texans. They erased Mexican-descended defenders from the narrative altogether. The Daughters similarly made no mention of the enslaved Black people brought by White migrants from the South during the 1820s and 1830s — enslaved people who would have been freed under Mexican law had the Texas Revolution failed.

Official versions of the state’s history and popular culture instead lionized the Texas Rangers, the paramilitary police force that used deadly violence and intimidation to subordinate people of color.

This version of Texas history was particularly useful for obscuring the history of the violent subordination and disfranchisement of people of Mexican descent during the 1910s. That decade saw some of the worst state-sanctioned racial violence perpetrated along the border. A short-lived armed uprising by displaced Texas Mexican ranchers in Deep South Texas became the pretext for the Texas Rangers and other law enforcement to kill, with no semblance of due process, hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic Mexicans solely because of their race.

Texas State Rep. José Tomás (J.T.) Canales initiated an investigation of the Rangers’ racist atrocities in 1919, but apologists for the Rangers who viewed them as integral to Texas’s historical greatness led to the legislative committee absolving the group of wrongdoing. The families of those slain often kept copious documentation of their loved ones’ lives and unjust killings, but beyond that, these traumatic events were either systematically forgotten, or were celebrated as triumphs in mainstream histories.

The “sweep and glory” of Texas history was the central theme of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, meant to highlight the Lone Star State as a modern tourist attraction during the depths of the Great Depression. Yet, while squarely focused upon the achievements of White Texans, the event also created openings for African Americans and Mexican Americans to claim a place for themselves in Texas history.

For example, Black Texans put up a “Hall of Negro Life” celebrating the accomplishments of Black Texans as co-creators of Texas. The state refused to allocate any money for this specific purpose, but exhibitors were able to access federal funds to build the hall. Celebrated Black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a specifically-commissioned pamphlet about Black contributions to Texas, drawing from his landmark 1935 work “Black Reconstruction in America.”

Mexican Americans had no dedicated exhibit but surreptitiously inserted their history in several exhibits, most notably Jovita González’s history of Texas Catholic women in the Catholic Exhibit, which highlighted Spanish and Mexican women. This emblematized Mexican American efforts to restore the ignored Spanish and Mexican contributions to Texas history.

White Texans brushed aside these challenges to the dominant story of the state’s history. The Hall of Negro Life was the only Exposition building to be bulldozed at the end of the exhibit, and K-12 textbooks would not begin to incorporate Mexican American accounts of Texas history until well into the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet Black and Mexican American Texans and scholars of Texas have pushed for more inclusive — and truthful — narratives of the Lone Star state’s past.

In recent decades, the triumphalist narrative of Texas history promulgated by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the 1936 Centennial Exposition has been scrutinized and challenged. The explosion of scholarship on African Americans, Mexican Americans and Indigenous peoples since the 1970s has changed the teaching of Texas history at every level. Textbooks used in schools and universities today more accurately depict the extent and role of slavery in the Texas Revolution, the violence and disfranchisement visited on the state’s Mexican and Black populations and their struggles for civil rights since the 19th century. Many teachers and school districts have welcomed this new content, in part because it better connects to the world in which their students — only a quarter of whom are White — live.

Museums like the Bullock Texas State History Museum have embraced opportunities to tell uncomfortable histories of racism and violence. Through the Refusing to Forget project (which we helped co-found) the museum featured an exhibit on the long-suppressed killings of the 1910s. Dedicated to a full account of this deadly era, the exhibit used the word “murder” and named the Rangers involved. It drew over 40,000 visitors during its eight-week run in 2016.

Historical markers acknowledging Reconstruction-era violence against Black voters and Ranger violence against Mexican Americans have been erected. When officials in Presidio County objected to such a marker commemorating the 1918 Porvenir Massacre, the largest border massacre of the 1910s, they were overruled by the Texas Historical Commission. An independent documentary about the event and the families’ efforts to remember them was broadcast on PBS in 2019.

Despite these efforts, the whitewashed, triumphalist version of Texas history has not disappeared. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco still touts the White conquest and “taming” of Texas, although it is now leavened by mention of Latino and Black Rangers.

But this kind of Anglo-Saxon triumphalism must now compete at every turn with darker and more honest accounts of Texas history. And it seems to be losing. In 2020, Dallas officials removed a statue from the city’s Love Field airport modeled after Ranger Jay Banks, who stopped the racial integration of Mansfield High School and Texarkana Junior College in 1956.

It is striking that the authors of HB 3979 seem to assume that teachers left to their own devices will present their students with the dark and vexing chapters of Texas history. Perhaps on some level they realize that control over the narrative of Texas history has escaped their grasp.