1836 Project’s pamphlet to promote a 'patriotic' version of Texas history airbrushes oppression and poverty, experts say
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By Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune

A committee charged with producing a “patriotic” telling of Texas history approved a 15-page pamphlet last month that will now be distributed to new Texas drivers.

The advisory committee — named the 1836 Project after the year Texas gained its independence from Mexico — was created last year with the passing of House Bill 2497. The legislation required the committee to tell a story of “a legacy of economic prosperity” and the “abundant opportunities for businesses and families, among other requirements.”

“We must never forget why Texas became so exceptional in the first place,” Gov. Greg Abbott said when he signed the bill. Abbott, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, later selected a nine-member, largely conservative group to head the 1836 Project.

The creation of the committee was largely a conservative backlash to The New York Times’ publication of “The 1619 Project,” which was named after the year enslaved people first arrived on American soil and aimed to center slavery in conversations about U.S. history. The pamphlet, which will be distributed at driver’s license offices, comes at a time when the state is increasingly trying to regulate how race, sexuality and history are taught in public schools.

The Texas Tribune reviewed the 1836 Project committee’s final pamphlet and asked historians to comment on how accurately and thoroughly the document chronicles the state’s history.

The historians acknowledged that the committee had a difficult assignment; Donald Frazier, the chair of the subcommittee in charge of drafting the pamphlet, called squeezing the entirety of the state’s history into little more than a dozen pages a “herculean task.”

But the historians also noted that condensing the state’s history and painting it in a mostly celebratory light came at a cost. The pamphlet, they said, fails to fully hold institutions accountable for slavery and other forms of oppression and shortchanged Indigenous Texans, Tejanos, Black Texans and women.

The pamphlet engages with contemporary research — like literature about the lasting impact of the Confederacy — but also tries to fulfill state lawmakers’ wish to promote “patriotic education” and avoid disturbing Texas’ myths, said Raúl A. Ramos, a history professor at the University of Houston.

“The traditional mythic version of Texas history, it’s about the heroes of the Alamo having pure intentions of liberty and freedom in the abstract rather than the liberty to conquer Indigenous and Mexican lands and freedom to own enslaved people,” Ramos said. “It’s that abstract idea that is attractive and powerful and [that’s what] people gravitate towards, and I think that’s what people associate with patriotism.”

Below is a look at how the Project 1836 advisory committee’s pamphlet discusses four areas of Texas’ history — early settlements, the oil and cotton industries, the Alamo and slavery — and the historians’ notes on what the document’s authors chose to play up, play down or omit.

Early settlements

Trinidad Gonzalez, a history professor at South Texas College, said the pamphlet aggrandizes Manifest Destiny, the belief that American settlers had the God-given right to expand across North America. It’s an idea about early settlements that was driven by 19th century nationalism and exceptionalism.

In the opening paragraph, the pamphlet says the land of Texas seemed like “an inhospitable zone to many,” but Americans “with fortitude and nerve” saw the opportunities and made the region productive.

“It wasn’t just the Americans who thought it was boundless opportunities. [The pamphlet’s authors] are trying to create the simplified Manifest Destiny story that fits this older myth of white Americans coming in and basically building Texas,” Gonzalez said. “And when you do that, then you silence everybody else that participated in the history of Texas.”

Historians told the Tribune that the pamphlet glosses over the Indigenous, Spanish and Mexican populations that resided before, saying Texas was “nearly depopulated” before American settlers migrated to the land.

However, the Indigenous population significantly outnumbered American settlers in 1836, Gonzalez said. The stretch of land from the Rio Grande Valley to Laredo was also once one of the most economically successful Spanish settlements, he added.

Emilio Zamora, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called the pamphlet’s interpretation of early settlements in Texas “very unsettling.”

The document “speaks very negatively about the Mexicans and the colonial settlers that preceded them,” Zamora said.

Oil, not cotton

When it comes to the state’s economy, the pamphlet zeros in on the oil industry. The discovery of oil “ushered in a period of remarkable transformation,” the pamphlet says. It characterizes the wildcatter and oil derrick as “Texas icons.”

Nowadays, West Texas’ Permian Basin is the nation’s most productive oil region. The Permian produces more than 5 million barrels of the nation’s daily output of 11.6 million barrels of oil per day.

But before oil, there was cotton. Texas still leads the nation in cotton production. Cotton continues to be the state’s largest agricultural export and is responsible for thousands of jobs across sectors, such as ginning companies, warehouses and oil mill processing plants.

The 1836 Project pamphlet mentions oil five times. It never mentions cotton.

The pamphlet highlights Houston’s title as “energy capital of the world,” but cotton used to be so essential to the city that it would celebrate the crop with festivals, naming a symbolic leader for the carnival King Nottoc (“cotton” spelled backwards).

The pamphlet “ignores the reality that cotton production and poverty long characterized much of the Texas economy after the Civil War and through 1940. Instead it glamorizes the oil industry,” said Walter Buenger, a history professor at UT-Austin.

Buenger said that the state’s dependence on cotton made Texas one of the poorest states in the country.

The cotton market had globalized and become increasingly competitive, but the state delayed mechanizing cotton production to continue offering low-skilled jobs that had low returns. It resulted in an unequal distribution of income: While a handful of cotton traders got “fabulously wealthy,” most Texans struggled to survive, Buenger said.

“Through 1940, Texas was, for the most part, very poor. And they were poor because they were wrapped up in this cotton production business,” Buenger explained.

The Alamo

The Alamo, the Spanish mission founded in the 18th century in what is now San Antonio, has long been enshrined as “the cradle of Texas liberty.” The men who died as Mexican troops laid siege on the Alamo are often remembered as heroic martyrs who valued liberty over their lives.

“Only Texas could turn defeat into a legend — and a song, and a tourist attraction, and a major motion picture,” author Rosemary Kent famously said of the Alamo.

But the 1836 Project pamphlet does not dwell on the Alamo. Of the document’s 4,517 words, just 87 are spent on the siege.

Gene Preuss, an associate professor of history at the University of Houston-Downtown, called that a notable move away from traditionalist history in a state where the Alamo has often been at the center of Texas politics and history.

“There really isn’t much discussion of the Alamo in the pamphlet,” he said. “And I find that interesting because a lot of traditional histories would focus on the Alamo.”

In fitting the Battle of the Alamo into one abridged paragraph, the pamphlet’s authors appear to acknowledge the recent efforts to reexamine the historic event.

“For a long time, Texas history has been taught from one perspective,” Preuss said. “I think [the pamphlet] does enough to open some cracks, which I as a professor can open further for my students so that when they come into class, they don’t say things like ‘I didn’t know [Black Texans] participated in the Texas revolution’ [or] ‘I didn’t know Tejanos were on the side of Texians and died at the Alamo.’”

But the pamphlet also avoids going into that reexamination. It doesn’t mention, for instance, the issues brought up in the book “Forget the Alamo,” which was published last year and prompted the lieutenant governor to push for the cancellation of an event featuring the title at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. The book highlights how the defense of slavery played a key role in the conflict with Mexico and questions the garrison defenders’ military strategy.

Slavery

When the 1836 Project committee was established, Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of “The 1619 Project,” feared that the 1836 Project was another attempt to veil the nation’s history of slavery.

“When it comes to slavery, some people have never wanted open debate and honesty. They seek to bury and prohibit instead,” Hannah-Jones said on Twitter.

The pamphlet does mention slavery, acknowledging that it became an economic engine for the state. Republican lawmakers also required that the document mention how on June 19, 1865, the date that became the basis for Juneteenth, Union soldiers in Galveston announced the liberation of all enslaved people.

“We wanted to reemphasize and make dang true that everybody understands that slavery was a bad thing and Texas participated,” Frazier, the chair of the subcommittee in charge of drafting the pamphlet, said at the August committee meeting.

But many of the historians the Tribune spoke with said the pamphlet doesn’t go far enough, noting that it omits how central defending slavery was in the Texas war of secession from Mexico and the Civil War. They say it airbrushes gruesome accounts of how enslaved people were treated.

“Slavery is mentioned only as a complication that delayed annexation by the United States. The pamphlet never names any enslaved individuals, nor does it describe their fight for freedom,” historians Leah LaGrone and Michael Phillips wrote in a Texas Monthly column.

Ramos, the history professor at the University of Houston, said the pamphlet’s treatment of slavery is an example of how the document takes a passive, ambiguous approach to inequity and oppression that doesn’t hold Americans who participated in institutions accountable.

The pamphlet, he said, is a document birthed out of a political process and should be read as such.

“Sometimes people interpret history as being political, as being a way people might signal their politics,” Ramos said. “But it’s also political in that way that is part of how we view ourselves as people, as a community, and how we continue to either build community or divide community.”

Disclosure: Bullock Texas State History Museum, Texas Monthly, The New York Times, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Houston and the University of Houston-Downtown have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/26/texas-1836-project-pamphlet/.

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