Democrats and Historians Raise Concerns About Texas Patriotic Education Bill

Patterned after former President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, the Texas 1836 Project calls for creation of an advisory board to promote patriotic education and the state’s legacy of economic prosperity. Critics call it propaganda.

The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. (Image by Wolfgang R. Zissler from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

HOUSTON (CN) — A GOP-backed bill aims to give Texans a deeper understanding of the state’s history, back to before the 1836 war with Mexico. But its veneration of the “core principles” of the state’s founding has some worried it is propaganda meant to gloss over racism entangled in those roots.

“Texas. It’s Like a Whole Other Country” is one of the state’s mottos. And there’s some truth in it. From 1836 when the region’s inhabitants won their independence from Mexico to 1846, when it was annexed by the United States, it was known as the Republic of Texas.

It has a lot to be proud of, including a healthy economy: “If Texas was its own country, we would now have the ninth largest economy in the entire world,” Republican Governor Greg Abbott said early this year.

And it has a reputation of affordability and being a good place for a fresh start. From 2019 to 2020 the state gained 373,000 residents, more than any other state.

House Bill 2497 seeks to establish the Texas 1836 Project, in which a nine-person committee would “promote patriotic education” and “advise the governor on the core principles of the founding of this state and how those principles further enrich the lives of its residents.”

That language has raised the hackles of some Democratic minority state legislators, given the role that racism has played in the state’s history.

Stephen F. Austin, one of the state’s founding fathers, enlisted a group of settlers — many of whom went on to become Texas Rangers — in the 1820s to kill Native Americans he saw as a threat to Anglos settling in the area, as former Dallas Morning News investigative reporter Doug Swanson details in his book “Cult of Glory,” a history of the Texas Rangers published last year.

Texans also fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War as its Anglo residents had embraced the institution of slavery. In the three decades before the war, the state’s slave population grew from 5,000 to more than 182,000.

And, according to Swanson, the Texas Rangers murdered thousands of Mexican-Americans, known as Tejanos, to take land that had been granted to the Tejanos’ ancestors when the territory was under the control of Spain.

But the bill’s lead author, Tan Parker, R-Flower Found, says the intent is not to rewrite or fabricate Texas’ past.

“The 1836 Project intends to find the missing chapters of our story and make them available for current and future generations of Texans,” he said in a committee meeting.

The bill calls for the creation of a nine-person advisory committee, with three each appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and house speaker, and says the appointees can come from the private sector.

The committee’s duties would be to promote awareness of several facets of the state’s annals “as they relate to the history of prosperity and democratic freedom in this state,” including the state’s indigenous peoples, its Spanish and Mexican heritage, its Christian heritage and its heritage of bearing firearms in defense of life and liberty.

It would also have to raise awareness of Juneteenth — a holiday in which Black people celebrate the day in 1865 when Union officers in Galveston notified slaves they were free because Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had officially barred slavery more than two years earlier — and that President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

To spread the materials to all corners of Texas, the committee would work with state agencies to make them available at state parks, museums, monuments and landmarks, and would develop a pamphlet for distribution to all new Texans when they receive their driver’s licenses.

Though the legislation does not explicitly call for the committee’s work to be incorporated in Texas public school courses, that seems implied as the Texas Education Agency would provide funding, if available, and administrative support for the project.

The bill passed the Texas House last month 124-19 and a Texas Senate committee took it up Tuesday.

Senator Royce West, a Black Democratic who represents Dallas County, told the committee it seems like Juneteenth was an afterthought.

“I would like to make sure we include in there African American history, heritage, culture because obviously slavery was a big issue in Texas in terms of the foundation of the state and that needs to be taught also.”

West said he also does not understand the state’s role in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, other than the fact that Johnson, who was from Texas, signed it.

For decades Texas, like other states with a history of voter discrimination, had to get the Justice Department’s permission for any election law changes, until the Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling found the preclearance regime unenforceable.

Republicans, who hold a strong majority in the Legislature, are pushing through a bill they say is meant to keep voter fraud out of elections. Opponents claim it is designed to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning minorities.

Dr. Madeline Hsu, a history professor at the University of Texas-Austin, said HB 2497 is suspect because it does not involve the Texas State Historical Association.

Parker did not respond Tuesday when asked via an email to his chief of staff if he consulted with the association in crafting the bill.

“They seem not to really have consulted that many experts on Texas history,” Hsu said. “The content it proposes to focus on seems highly limited … There’s the emphasis on the patriotic history, which is not defined.”

The first recorded Asians came to Texas in 1870 to build railroads and the federal government ran incarceration camps for Japanese Americans in the state during World War II.

But there is no mention of Asian history education in the bill.

Despite its mandate to call attention to the history of other minorities in Texas, Hsu said the bill seems superficial. “It’s not promoting the recognition Texas has a racially deeply conflicted history.”

If passed, it would go on the books Sept. 1.

The proposed Texas project is an offshoot of the 1776 Commission Trump established in September to “promote patriotic education.” It released a report in January that historians ripped as being filled with errors and partisan propaganda. President Joe Biden disbanded it on his first day in office.

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