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A battle over who gets to tell Texas history is brewing into a war over the state historical association’s future

By Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune

A battle over who gets to tell Texas history is brewing into a war over the state historical association’s future” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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In an El Paso convention center ballroom, a March meeting of the Texas State Historical Association board quickly lost the composure that’s long marked the volunteer organization’s typically low-key proceedings for more than 125 years.

The association plays a quiet yet influential role in the state. Its blueprints are all over K-12 history curricula and well-circulated reference books like the Handbook of Texas and the Texas Almanac.

Yet internal tensions boiled over into public view during a vote on who would fill open seats on the organization’s board. When J.P. Bryan, who had been appointed executive director seven months earlier, abruptly lobbied for a former Texas Supreme Court justice over a public school teacher recommended by a selection committee, shouts erupted from academics across the room. Members rebuffed Bryan’s candidate and ultimately voted to appoint the teacher.

When the board president called an executive meeting to fire Bryan the following month, he sued her and the association. A Galveston County judge granted Bryan a temporary injunction in May and barred the board from meeting to fire Bryan or consider any other business until a September trial.

The dispute at TSHA hinges on one rule — the board’s membership must have a roughly equal balance of academics and nonacademics. The idea is that academics unearth new evidence and new findings about the past while nonacademics, with their fervor and funds, expand the association’s reach. As TSHA has weathered changes in board membership, the dynamic between the two groups has dictated internal, often healthy, debates.

But when Bryan stepped in as executive director last fall, he called into question how board members are classified. He thinks anyone involved in education is an academic. Other board members say that only people who teach at the college level and hold a Ph.D. are academics. But there is one thing both sides agree on: the outcome of the dispute will affect the future of how Texas history is told.

Bryan has emerged as a champion for conservative, nonacademics who favor a patriotic telling of history. He supports a historical narrative that illustrates Texas exceptionalism, and opportunity and freedoms across the state. That means celebrating Texas giants, such as Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, as well as the troops at The Alamo.

“We believe that there was an incredible history fashioned on this landscape by exceptional people,” Bryan, a descendant of Austin, told The Texas Tribune. “Academics don’t accept the fact that especially if you were Anglo or Tejano, that you were particularly exceptional.”

Over the past 25 years, professional historians at TSHA have at the same time moved toward increasing representation of women, Indigenous people and LGBTQ+ people in Texas history. They’ve also challenged how Texans see traditional heroes. For example, academics have cast Texas Rangers at the time of World War I as perpetrators of state-sponsored violence against ethnic Mexicans.

“Since the late 80s, we have made substantial progress. You’re seeing now a sort of reaction to that substantial progress,” said Walter Buenger, chief historian at the association. “The squabbles in the history association threaten a presentation of history that gives dignity to all and is honest and accurate.”

As the divides within the association come to a legal head, so does the broader battle of how to tell Texas history.

“It just feels like another thing in America that’s broken and that people can’t set aside differences and find enough of a common ground to cooperate, to see to it that an institution that does the basic mission of fostering the study of our past,” said Ben Johnson, a member of the association. “This is just another thing that can’t escape the divisions in American society.”

Warring definition of academics

Nominated to the board at the March meeting, Mary Jo O’Rear stands as a test for the debate over who is considered an academic. O’Rear is a public teacher at Corpus Christi Independent School District and holds a master’s degree in arts.

Bryan is an avid collector of rare books who helped restore a Galveston orphanage and turn it into a museum. He and his supporters see O’Rear as an academic. In the lawsuit, he said the nomination of O’Rear skews the balance of the board in favor of academics and would “emasculate the non-academic membership.”

But Buenger, who is a history professor at the University of Texas-Austin, insists public school teachers have never been considered academics.

Among the current board members that are classified as nonacademics are a Harris County district judge, a director of Bryan’s historical museum and a fifth-generation rancher from Jim Hogg County. The members who are clearly classified as academics are history professors at universities who hold PhDs and have authored several history books.

The board in years prior has had conversations about who counts as an academic, but members told the Tribune there has never been a breakdown in communication in this way.

The 20-member board oversees a 126-year-old nonprofit that promotes and documents Texas history. A significant source of funding comes from the state — with $480,000 currently set aside for TSHA from the Texas Historical Commission budget every two years.

For a new person to join the board, the nominating committee — made up of an academic past board president, a nonacademic past board president, one board member and three TSHA members — must select them as part of a slate of candidates for members to consider and vote on at the annual meeting.

When attendees of the 2023 TSHA meeting readied to vote in a new slate of board members, the nominating committee had selected O’Rear. But Bryan and his supporters threw a curveball and introduced another candidate: former Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson.

Audible murmurs broke out across the room.

Attendees questioned if Jefferson was a TSHA member, which could not be confirmed. Ultimately, Jefferson did not get enough votes and O’Rear was selected as a board member. Members called it the most contentious meeting in recent TSHA history.

With O’Rear on the board, Bryan counts 12 academics and eight nonacademics on the board. Some TSHA board members count 11 academics and nine nonacademics on the board. Others count 10 academics and 10 nonacademics.

In the lawsuit, TSHA president Nancy Baker Jones likened the effort from Bryan to “attempting a coup of the TSHA to whitewash its publications, events, and product.”

In April, Jones tried to call an executive meeting to discuss the concerns about the ideological imbalance. At the meeting, she planned to introduce a motion to eliminate the executive director position altogether, which would put Bryan out of his job. That’s when Bryan filed the lawsuit.

A lawsuit widens the divide

In unfiltered and brazen language in the lawsuit, Bryan accuses Jones of becoming “intoxicated with her thirst for power.” He says Jones has approached the TSHA presidency with a “bullheadedness.”

“The TSHA is not being administered properly when certain elements — like Jones — are pursuing their own ultra vires agenda to further imbalance the board,” Bryan writes in the lawsuit.

Bryan suggests the annual meeting, and the nominees Jones brought forward, are a tactic to leave nonacademics out of the debate over how to tell Texas history.

“Mary Jo O’Rear is the symbol of the latest manipulation by the Nominating Committee in furtherance of their quest to retain the bully pulpit of Board imbalance at the last annual meeting,” Bryan said.

Bryan is now seeking defamatory remedies from Jones, estimating the damage over the past several months to be up to $1 million. That’s more than twice the amount of state funds that go toward the association in a two-year budget cycle. He’s not asking the association for any money.

Bryan, a former CEO of a multi-million-dollar energy company, insists it’s not about the money. He says he just wants traditionalists who share his view of history to get “a seat at the table.”

In May, Bryan won an injunction from Galveston County Judge Kerry Neves. That means until the trial on Sept. 11, the board cannot meet to consider his firing or any other matters. The debate about the board’s membership must also stay at a standstill.

The fissures at TSHA have become the latest battleground over how to control the way Texas history is taught.

During the 2021 legislative session, Texas lawmakers limited how Texas teachers can talk about current events and America’s history of racism in the classroom. It joined a handful of states aiming to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public school classrooms. Critical race theory is the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals. It’s an academic discipline taught at the university level, but it has become a common phrase used by conservatives to include anything about race taught or discussed in public secondary schools.

Conservatives also came up with their own celebratory telling of Texas history with a 15-page pamphlet distributed to Texans getting a new driver’s license. Known as the 1836 Project, the pamphlet promotes a narrative backed by Bryan’s camp. The name of the pamphlet is an evident reference to The 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times endeavor that examines U.S. history from the date when enslaved people first arrived on American soil. Lawmakers in 2021 forbade schools from requiring students to read that project’s essays.

“It’s all a part of the national pushback in which people of color and queer people and women are being denied their existence,” Rebecca Sharpless, a TSHA member of 40 years, said. “It’s all very, very synchronous.”

While members wait for the outcome of the trial, the historical association is expected to approve its annual budget, prepare for the 2024 annual conference, make staffing decisions and review its agreement with UT-Austin. Bryan remains at the helm while the board’s hands are tied.

In a June letter to members on the TSHA mailing list, Bryan addressed the lawsuit. He seemed to straddle his role as the executive director and a party in the lawsuit.

“A lawsuit is nothing anyone wants. Unfortunately, I was left no choice as the board overwhelmed by academic interests showed no intention of adhering to the bylaws and was instead aggressively moving forward with actions that would forever change the TSHA, further exposing it to financial disaster and academic bias,” Bryan said, making his plea.

Bryan is optimistic that the organization will be able to move past the lawsuit once a ruling is made about board membership. Bryan has a clear vision to expand the reach of TSHA programming and to “ensure that history doesn’t become just some heirlooms sitting up on the mantel.”

But members of the historical association share a fear that the lawsuit could upend the body altogether. Hundreds of members have signed a petition, urging Bryan to drop legal action.

“We have had small squabbles in the past,” Buenger, the chief historian, said. “But I believe that the TSHA may not survive this as a sort of noble experiment in getting professional lay members who are interested in history and professional members who are academics to cooperate.”

Disclosure: Texas Historical Commission and Texas State Historical Association 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.

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