Remember the Alamo? Why some Texans embrace a broader history.
Three hundred years after the founding of a Spanish mission in San Antonio, Texans are grappling with post-statehood histories that put white male settlers front and center. A new generation of historians seeks a more diverse set of characters.
San Antonio, Texas—Growing up, Vincent Huizar never took much interest in Texas history. He flunked history class in high school, and while he knew his family had lived in the San Antonio area for centuries, he didn’t inquire any further until his son had children.
The third grandchild was born with light skin, light brown hair and hazel eyes, says Mr. Huizar, who has leathery brown skin and dark eyes. His son turned to him and asked a simple question: “Dad, what are we?”
The question launched a 17-year genealogical hunt that led Huizar to discover that he is a sixth-generation descendant of Pedro Huízar, a surveyor and craftsman from Spain who is credited by most for sculpting the iconic Rose Window at Mission San José, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The origins of the 18th-century Rose Window are still being debated. But Huizar’s journey into his family roots reflects a much larger issue for Texans: How to add nuance and a multiplicity of perspectives to a historical narrative that has long been romanticized and oversimplified.
“Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett and all those people weren’t part of me,” Huizar says. “I wasn’t descendants of them. I was a descendant of the other people they were coming in and killing and getting rid of.”
As San Antonio gears up to celebrate its 300th anniversary this year, commemorating the city’s founding in 1718 by Spanish explorers, historians in Texas are trying to broaden how the state memorializes its history.
“It’s very difficult to understand how things are today without looking to the past and how we got here and the experience of our ancestors,” says Brett Derbes, managing editor of the handbook of Texas.. “No one wants to feel they’re not represented in that history.”
For generations, a romanticized vision of Texas history was of white male settlers taming a wilderness; of James Bowie and Davy Crockett falling at the Alamo; of cowboys herding cattle across the plains; and of gushing oil wells. That vision largely left out Native Americans, women, African-Americans, and other groups.
Texas is far from unique in that sense, as evinced by roiling battles over the removal of Confederate monuments in the South and revisionist accounts of the rebels’ cause. Still, in recent years the state has taken steps to promote more diverse and unvarnished perspectives on its history, even as conservatives have pushed back on school textbooks.
More than 'cowboys and oil'
Until the 1960s, students in Texas learned from an illustrated book called “Texas History Movies.” Sponsored by Mobil Oil, the book was criticized by historians for its racial stereotypes and biases. The most popular adult book on Texas history, T.R. Fehrenbach’s 1968 epic “Lone Star,” told from the perspective of white male settlers, has been challenged by more academically rigorous texts.
As a high school student in 1960s Houston, for example, Michael Hurd – who now directs the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University – describes his education in African-American Texas history as: “There was slavery, there was emancipation, and here we are.”
“Everything was focused on slavery, but there was nothing in regards to any other aspects of the black experience in Texas, like business, athletics, entertainment,” says Mr. Hurd, who is black.
As for Mexican-Americans and Tejanos, whose families have lived in Texas since it was a 17th-century Spanish colony, their roots were also obscured.
Armando C. Alonzo, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, went to high school in a small town near the US-Mexico border.
“We weren’t even taught really the [state’s] Spanish past,” he says. “The typical history books made Mexican-American people to have no history, [that we] came as immigrants in the 1910 [Mexican] revolution.”
A broader view
In 1968, San Antonio helped to birth a broader view of the past when it hosted the World’s Fair. In true Texas fashion, the state wanted its own pavilion in addition to a United States one, and the result was the largest pavilion at the fair, an inverted pyramid indoors divided into sections for each of the ethnic groups that settled Texas, including Native Americans and the Spanish. After the fair ended, the pavilion remained open as the Institute of Texan Cultures.
Another example is the Handbook of Texas, an official chronicle of the state’s history. The TSHA began publishing it in the 1950s and focused on “those popular Texas topics” like Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and the doomed siege of the Alamo, says Mr. Derbes, the managing editor of the Handbook.
“In the 1980s there was a huge effort to expand” it, he adds, “to include as many perspectives as possible.”
That effort has seen the publication of new editions of the Handbook – all also published online – focusing on African-Americans' Texas history, Tejano Texas history, and women in Texas history, among others.
Darker historical events have also been surfaced. The Handbook now details the “Cart War,” an 1857 conflict that saw Anglo traders attack, kill, and steal from their more successful Tejano competitors. It also describes the state’s long history of lynchings of African-Americans.
'I had to teach myself'
Some of the historians who challenge the popular narrative say they had to fashion their own versions of local history.
Dr. Alonzo didn’t formally study history until he was a grad student; he credits his inspiration to the Chicano movement of the 1960s. “I had an interest, but at that moment, 1970 … universities didn’t have the resources to teach it,” he adds. “No one was there to teach me, so I basically had to teach myself.”
Professor Hurd, meanwhile, says he learned about black history by reading black-owned magazines and newspapers like Ebony, Jet, the Chicago Defender, and the Houston Informer.
“There’s so much more of it now since I started this journey after I graduated high school,” he adds. “I would say from the 1980s – and maybe just the 1990s – that some of that scholarship has come out.”
Signs of progress and empathy
Broadening the study of Texas history remains “a work in progress,” however, according to Sarah Gould, at the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
The Texas Board of Education was criticized in 2010 for approving curriculum standards with a distinctly conservative political bent: a positive presentation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade; prominent coverage of President Reagan; and material on the “unintended consequences” of Title IX, affirmative action, and the Great Society. More recently, the board rejected two proposed Mexican-American studies textbooks in the past year, though it has said that it’s open to such studies, which have been adopted in other states.
The Tricentennial is also drawing more attention to overlooked aspects of traditional Texas history – including how Juan N. Seguin, a Tejano hero of the Texas Revolution, fled to Mexico decades later after threats of violence from Anglo settlers.
Huizar, a retired sheet-metal worker who lives in San Antonio, remains skeptical of what the city’s 2018 celebration will bring.
“I want to see what their version is going to come out, what they talk about, see if they’re going to keep our history in there,” he says.
Incorporating these different perspectives into Texas history could have benefits beyond making people like Huizar feel more included in the culture and fabric of the state, say historians.
“I think we all have to try our best and open our minds to thinking about history as a multi-perspective event,” says Dr. Gould.
“When you show [people] there are multiple perspectives it allows them to better imagine themselves in those situations, and it also teaches them to be empathetic,” she adds. “I don’t think it would be too much to ask we bring that concept of empathy into the teaching of history.”
Correction: Prof. Sarah Gould is at the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas, San Antonio.