Publication Date

November 29, 2023

Perspectives Section

Viewpoints

Geographic

  • United States

Thematic

Public History, State & Local (US)

The Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), an organization that has nurtured and enriched the study of Texas history for 126 years, is in trouble.

A severe thunderstorm seen from a distance over a prairie.

Texas historians are weathering a political storm as the Texas State Historical Association becomes a front in the culture wars. Kelly DeLay/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0. Image cropped.

 

In recent months, the TSHA has been rocked by a shocking lawsuit from within its own ranks. This suit is primarily about who controls the organization and the narrative of Texas history, a manifestation of a highly political rift within the Texas history community that has been brewing for years. It presents a new front in the national culture wars and a danger to academic freedom.

This tale begins with the TSHA’s unique public orientation. Founded in 1897, the TSHA publishes one of the oldest continuously running state history journals in the nation, the Southwestern Historical Quarterly; puts on a large and energetic annual meeting; and compiles a massive online encyclopedia, the Handbook of Texas, offered freely to the public. Notably, this association has long mixed academics and nonacademics into its governance out of a desire to popularize and broaden the subject of Texas history. In fact, the organization’s bylaws (the entry point of the recent litigation) broadly indicate this arrangement under Article XII:

For many years, there has been an established custom that the presidency of the Association be alternated from year to year between academic and nonacademic members and that the membership of the Board of Directors likewise be balanced substantially between these two groups. An academic member is described as an active or retired employee of an accredited academic institution whose position at that institution materially involves (or involved) the teaching and/or research of history.

That leadership mix has been the subject of internal veneration. For example, in a 2010 Southwestern Historical Quarterly essay, Walter L. Buenger, the current TSHA chief historian and holder of the Summerlee Foundation Chair in Texas History and the Barbara Stuart Centennial Professorship in Texas History at the University of Texas at Austin, extolled the virtues of such a balanced leadership in order to maintain a more vigorous and impactful history of the changing state.

Tensions over the meaning of history have finally exploded.

Tensions over the meaning of history—inquiry versus celebration, critique versus memorialization—have been building for years within the association and have finally exploded, though the political fault lines do not always neatly align along the vague academic and nonacademic categories. In the fall of 2022, wealthy oilman J. P. Bryan, former CEO of Torch Energy Advisors, was appointed the TSHA’s executive director after promising to use his business acumen to stabilize the association’s shaky finances. In the spring of 2023, Bryan sued the TSHA president, the respected historian Nancy Baker Jones of the Ruthe Winegarten Memorial Foundation for Texas Women’s History, for up to $1 million in damages because of her allegedly conducting her presidential duties in a manner he viewed as personally adverse and for having an alleged “thirst for power.” While the civil suit was active, Bryan obtained an injunction from a state court based in his hometown to keep the TSHA’s board from exercising oversight over his management of the large nonprofit organization. The TSHA exerts real influence over what constitutes Texas history and how that history is taught at the university and K–12 levels, making this immediate accumulation of power quite a coup. This litigation limbo with a trial date set for the fall effectively hamstrung Jones’s presidency by allowing Bryan unchecked control of the organization. In August, Bryan agreed to drop the lawsuit provided that Jones voluntarily resign and that one academic board member be purged. As of the writing of this essay, this agreed-on settlement remains to be fulfilled.

Bryan’s lawsuit stems from a conflict at the TSHA annual meeting in El Paso last March. Bryan called a floor vote seeking to override the organization’s Nominating Committee with his handpicked candidate for a nonacademic board slot. He lost. Bryan’s request was out of the ordinary; attendees of the business meeting, open to all TSHA members, are usually quite deferential to the wishes of the Nominating Committee. When TSHA members at the meeting openly questioned whether this sudden, alternative nominee, a former state supreme court justice, was actually a member of the organization, the executive director could not definitively answer. Losing his composure, Bryan descended into the crowd to exchange heated remarks with those who demanded answers, wrongfully berated a trio of Latino scholars, and stormed out of the meeting. Because of complaints about this lack of professionalism and other concerns, brand-new TSHA president Nancy Baker Jones called a May board meeting to discuss removing Bryan from his position. Bryan then quickly obtained a court injunction to prevent the board from meeting and firing him. This injunction lasted several months until the settlement of late August.

The reason for this injunction rested on a debatable interpretation of Article XII of the TSHA bylaws—the executive director’s legal team in the 10th Judicial District Court of Galveston County alleged the board was improperly tilted toward academics—but this conflict is really about the culture wars that are erupting in many parts of the nation. Indeed, Bryan has not been shy about telling the media what the real basis for his lawsuit is. To one newspaper, he held that “the way the history of Texas is written” is in fact what his effort “is all about.” To another, Bryan stated flatly of academics, “I don’t like their history, and I don’t believe their history.” Specifically, Bryan believes that westward Anglo expansion and the founding of Texas had the effect of “spreading freedoms for all.” This claim was rebutted in an open letter by 10 past TSHA presidents, who asked how Bryan, a proud descendant of foundational Texan Stephen F. Austin through a nephew, can “seriously contend that his pioneer great-great-grandfather settled on his Brazoria County plantation with his thirty-eight slaves in order to secure ‘freedoms for all.’” These outdated understandings of the past resonate with Bryan’s public espousal of widespread conspiracy theories, such as his conviction that former President Barack Obama is a Muslim.

For our explorations to have intellectual rigor, no part of the past can be exempt from scrutiny.

For professional historians who have benefited from the stimulating, supportive space created by the TSHA, these events are most distressing. This organization has given us crucial feedback on our work, mentorship in our careers, connections to a wider community of historians, and venues in which to develop new research and teaching practices. Indeed, this entire situation exposes a fundamental disconnect about what history is, what it does, and who it is for. Bryan and his enablers allege Texas history is under attack by revisionists; most historians would regard revisionism as the normal push and pull of academic debate. What seems to historians like a healthy process of rethinking old ideas and proposing new ones is to Bryan and his supporters questioning deeply held, fragile identities. These traditionalists conflate folklore and myth with history; they project their own inflexibility onto professional historians for our unwillingness to guarantee that the reputations of mythic heroes and events of the past will be given a free pass in our studies. This gulf over the meaning of Texas history is rapidly widening.

What are historians of Texas to do? We must continue our work of telling the truth about the past with compelling evidence and interpretations. We need academic freedom to do this, an impossibility in the current context of frivolous million-dollar lawsuits that enable Machiavellian power grabs. For our explorations to have intellectual rigor, no part of the past can be exempt from scrutiny. And we have an obligation to engage the public, a goal admirably pursued by the TSHA in its storied career. To continue to do so, however, professional historians need to meaningfully share in the TSHA’s governance or consider other options, a likely possibility at the writing of this essay. Some TSHA members (including the author) have formed a group, Concerned TSHA Members, to communicate these concerns more widely. Texas is a state in which wealthy, motivated persons can buy any number of things. History and academic integrity should not be among them. Navigating the present and future depends on an honest, free, and open evaluation of our past—the central issue of this latest trouble in Texas.

Carlos Kevin Blanton is a professor of history at Texas A&M University, College Station.

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