Heroes or enslavers? Texas eyes laws to shield its founders from scorn

Heroes or enslavers? Texas eyes laws to shield its founders from scorn

Every morning, schoolchildren in Texas recite an oath to their state that includes the words, “I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God.”

Now, a flurry of proposed measures that could soon become law would promote even greater loyalty to Texas in the state’s classrooms and public spaces, as Republican lawmakers try to reframe Texas history lessons and play down references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination that are part of the state’s founding.

The proposals in Texas, a state that influences school curricula around the country through its huge textbook market, amount to some of the most aggressive efforts to control the teaching of American history. And they come as nearly a dozen other Republican-led states seek to ban or limit how the role of slavery and pervasive effects of racism can be taught.

Idaho was the first state to sign into law a measure that would withhold funding from schools that teach such lessons. And lawmakers in Louisiana, New Hampshire and Tennessee have introduced bills that would ban teaching about the enduring legacies of slavery and segregationist laws, or that any state or the country is inherently racist or sexist.

“The idea that history is a project that’s decided in the political arena is a recipe for disaster,” said Raul Ramos, a historian at the University of Houston who specializes in the American West.

Some of the positioning is politics as usual in Texas, where activists have long organized to imbue textbooks with conservative leanings. An especially active Republican-controlled legislative session has advanced hard-line measures from a host of new voting restrictions to a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

But the Texas history measures have alarmed educators, historians and activists who said they largely ignore the role of slavery and campaigns of anti-Mexican violence and would fail to educate a generation of students growing up in a state undergoing huge demographic shifts.

One measure that recently passed the Texas House, largely along party lines, would limit teacher-led discussions of current events; prohibit course credit for political activism or lobbying, which could include students who volunteer for civil rights groups; and ban teaching of The 1619 Project, an initiative by The New York Times that says it aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

Another bill that sailed through the Texas House would create a committee to “promote patriotic education” about the state’s secession from Mexico in 1836, largely by men who were fighting to expand slavery. Another measure would limit how teachers in Texas classrooms can discuss the ways in which racism influenced the legal system in the state, long a segregationist bastion, and the rest of the country. And a third bill would block exhibits at San Antonio’s Alamo complex from explaining that major figures in the Texas Revolution were slave owners.

Ramos questioned how the Texas Revolution, a six-month rebellion that concluded in the spring of 1836, could be associated with patriotism and freedom when the state’s new constitution explicitly legalized slavery seven years after Mexico had abolished it.

“How do you have freedom when you have slavery?” Ramos asked. “1836 values would have enslaved African Americans in perpetuity.”

The quarreling over the proposed legislation is testing the limits of Texas exceptionalism, with some questioning whether a broad sense of pride among residents should mean glossing over some of the state’s most painful chapters.

The proposed laws have also stirred ideological battles over everything from the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, with Texas Republicans voting down a proposal that would have required schools to teach about the insurrection, to the immigration status of the white American enslavers who settled illegally in what was then northern Mexico before figuring among the state’s founders.

“Do you want our Texas kids to be taught that the system of government in the United States and Texas is nothing but a cover-up for white supremacy?” Steve Toth, a Republican legislator from the Houston suburbs, asked when he introduced the bill banning the teaching that the United States is defined by racism.

Texas mandates that students take courses on state history in the fourth and seventh grades, and some teachers have urged lawmakers to take a more nuanced look at the state’s complex history. Juan Carmona, the head of the social studies department at Donna High School in the Rio Grande Valley, said he was concerned about the chilling effect the proposed legislation could have on classroom discussions.

“It’s like you’re not wanting us to teach critical thinking because you want, ‘OK, these are the causes, the effects, that’s it,” said Carmona, who was part of a 2018 effort that resulted in the long-sought implementation of a Mexican American studies curriculum by the Texas State Board of Education.

Others have questioned the intent of a chauvinistic approach to civics and history in a state undergoing sweeping demographic shifts. Latinos are on the cusp of eclipsing Anglos as Texas’ largest ethnic group, and almost half of the state’s children are Hispanic.

“This kind of mythologizing can be really exclusionary for students not seeing themselves reflected in the curriculum,” said Maggie Stern, an organizer with the Texas office of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Over the past year, as several police killings thrust race into the national consciousness, some aspects of Texas history have come under strain.

Authorities removed a statue of a Texas Ranger from Dallas Love Field airport last year amid criticism of the Rangers’ involvement in lynchings of people of Mexican descent. The University of Texas recently changed the names of campus buildings in Austin and Arlington that honored avowed segregationists.

While the debates over some of the history bills have erupted into typical partisan arguments, including a “Texas Heroes Act” that is now before the Senate and initially sought to downplay how slavery was a driving force in the Texas Revolution, the proposed legislation to create an 1836 Project has received support from both Republicans and Democrats.

The bill drew inspiration from Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which similarly called for “patriotic education” about US history. It was derided by scholars and canceled by President Joe Biden on his first day in office.

The bill for The Texas 1836 Project, which is now before the state Senate, would empower the governor, lieutenant governor and house speaker — all Republicans — to appoint a nine-member committee to “increase awareness of the Texas values that continue to stimulate boundless prosperity across this state.”

The committee would ensure that “patriotic education” is provided to the public at state parks, monuments and museums. It would also create a pamphlet distributed to anyone getting a Texas driver’s license extolling facets of state history that “promote liberty and freedom for businesses and families.”

Republicans attached amendments to the bill requiring the project to also raise awareness of the state’s Christian heritage and its traditions of owning guns, while also acknowledging the Texas origins of the annual Juneteenth holiday that commemorates the emancipation of slaves.

Democrats were also allowed to amend the bill, and they added requirements to include the contributions to the state by people of Hispanic ancestry and the roles that Texans have played in bolstering voting rights since the 1960s. House lawmakers passed the bill by a margin of 124-19.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Austin who submitted the amendments about voting rights, said he supported the legislation despite concerns that The Texas 1836 Project might “over-romanticize Texas history.”

Donald Frazier, a historian who is the director of the Texas Center at Schreiner University in Kerrville, said he supported the bill and saw it as “a reaction to the absolute lack of historical literacy of any kind.”

“There’s a lot to admire in Texas history and there’s a lot to cringe about,” said Frazier, who added that any honest telling of the state’s history would need to address issues like slavery. Key to The Texas 1836 Project would be the selection of the committee’s members.

“If they choose historians that are worth their salt, that are honest to their profession,” he said, “nobody’s going to have anything to worry about.”

[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]


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