Growing up in Texas, you learn two things in public schools right away: Remember the Alamo, and never, ever forget the year 1836—when rugged frontiersmen like Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin rallied an undermanned force to win their independence from an oppressive Mexican regime led by President Antonio López de Santa Anna.
For generations, these simple—but gripping—ideas have been drilled into kids growing up in the Lone Star State (myself included) as a way to celebrate, preserve, and propagate the legacies of those who made Texas, Texas. But as with so much of how America describes its past, these representations aren’t entirely accurate. Instead, they’re part of a carefully crafted mythology that, at times, forgoes true historical depictions of the people and events that forged this land. This is especially true when it comes to acknowledging how slavery, racism, and white supremacy shaped the state’s earliest days.
As has been heavily documented in past pieces by the New York Times and The Texas Standard, this mythology has come under fire over the past year. Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement’s nationwide reckoning on race and groundbreaking works like The 1619 Project, advocates and historians have sought to reframe the debate around legacy’s role in America’s past and its legacy today. And Texas, which was founded by enslavers and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, is at the center of this dispute over critical race theory.
Unsurprisingly, Texas Republicans aren’t on board with this. Rather than seeking to right these wrongs and acknowledge the state’s role in anglicizing, sanitizing, and largely erasing key aspects of its past, conservative lawmakers have spearheaded an effort that doubles down on the status quo. Their reasoning, which has been laid bare in several bills currently weaving their way through the Legislature, is obvious: Everything, even history, equates to a culture war worth fighting. More importantly, anything that seeks to provide deeper context and nuance about Texas’ earliest days is effectively a threat to their claim to power.
The most notable prong of this campaign comes in the form of House Bill 2497, which would create the 1836 Project. Beyond lacking any creativity in its name (it’s, you guessed it, copied from the aforementioned 1619 Project), the endeavor represents a bald-faced thrust by conservatives to reaffirm a commitment to this mythology by promoting “patriotic education” and increasing “awareness of the Texas values that continue to stimulate boundless prosperity across the state.” In layman’s terms, it would seek to further steep our education system—along with places like museums, monuments, and state parks—in falsehoods, a la former president Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission.
In past eras, educators and students would have little means of circumventing a crusade of falsehoods like this, said Raúl A. Ramos, an associate history professor at the University of Houston. But at a time when information contradicting this white-washed narrative is readily available on the internet, it’s unclear how effective even the most ambitious and blatant refutations of history will be.
“Not long ago—10, 15 years ago—the decisions of the Texas State Board of Education were important around social studies standards, particularly considering how big of an influence it had on textbooks nationwide. Essentially, you had a few elected board remembers here creating a national curriculum by deciding what was important in American history,” Ramos said. “That’s not as much the case these days. The internet and social media, for one, has changed things immensely. People, and students, have access to far more sources of information these days.”
Over the past several weeks, Ramos has become the leading voice in the fight against HB 2497, including penning an op-ed titled “The 1836 Project is the wrong past for our future.” An expert in the historical development of ethnic, national, regional, and class identities, he argues that efforts to combat much-needed discourses around our state’s history aren’t just detrimental to our education system and our society. They’re a poor use of government dollars, too.
As of now, state lawmakers have yet to officially make The 1836 Project a reality. But in a legislative session that’s been nothing short of a bloodbath for Texas Democrats, it’d be shocking to see HB 2497 fall short. With that in mind, it’s fair to wonder what will come of Republicans’ latest fight against truth and fact. Is it a legitimate threat to the future of our education system? Or is it a flailing attempt to preserve a mythology and social hierarchy that’s slowly, but surely, slipping away? Either way, it’s going to serve as a lesson for years to come.
“As a historian, I’m very interested in what this reveals about our political discourse and about our culture at this time. So, I think The 1836 Project is a great document for that,” Ramos said. “But it does feel like a desperate attempt to reassert the significance and the dominance of one particular perspective—all while knowing that pulling such a move is going to be impossible.”
Photo: Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons