Bexar County Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert would like to change the conversation about what the Alamo represents from contention toward contrition, and from myth to truth.
In direct response to the politically charged cancellation of a publicity event for the controversial new book Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, Calvert has organized a public forum with the book’s authors to be held Thursday evening in the Double Height Courtroom of the Bexar County Courthouse, for an audience of 200.
The 7 p.m. forum will include a discussion with co-authors Chris Tomlinson, Bryan Burrough, and Jason Stanford moderated by Calvert and Mario Salas, a longtime San Antonio advocate for social justice, and a chance for audience members to respond. A link to a livestream of the discussion will also be provided to the public.
A church and a battleground
“The Alamo is a church,” Calvert said pointedly in a May 18 speech during Commissioners Court, “and can be an epicenter for healing for the entire United States.”
Hingeing a $25 million contribution from Bexar County to the Alamo redevelopment plan on the inclusion of a historically accurate narrative of the site’s history, Calvert believes San Antonio is the ideal location to spark a national conversation on the role of slavery in the Alamo story.
The true history of the battle for Texian independence rests on the tip of a bayonet, according to Tomlinson, a columnist for Hearst newspapers in Texas.
“You know what? Frontiersman did not carry bayonets,” he said. And yet, at the Battle of San Jacinto, “the Texians all had bayonets,” Tomlinson said, explaining that the U. S. Army sneaked men and weapons into fledgling Texan territory to train and equip Sam Houston’s ragtag rebel army.
Tomlinson and co-authors conclude that the bayonets were used to murder prisoners and rape Mexican women as spoils of war, rendering Houston’s warriors less than noble.
Likewise, the book details various misdeeds among the famous Alamo defenders, rendering them not as the heroes of myth, but as “self-interested, hapless rebels who refused to accept advice from people of color and as a result, found themselves trapped and forced to fight for their lives. Because that’s what happened. If we’re just honest for five minutes, that’s what the historical record shows,” Tomlinson said in an interview.
Such factual examination is at the heart of the recent book that has stirred controversy in the Texas statehouse, and stirred the embers of the heated conversation over how the Alamo story should be told.
A genie out of the bottle
Salas, who teaches African American studies, American politics and Texas politics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Forget the Alamo is not the first book to address the role of slavery in the founding of the Texas Republic. The new book joins America’s Forgotten First War for Slavery and Genesis of The Alamo and Exodus from the Alamo: The Anatomy of the Last Stand Myth by Philip Tucker, and The Alamo Reader: A Study in History edited by Todd Hansen, among tomes illuminating the complex subject.
But Salas said that as a popular history rather than an academic study, Forget the Alamo has a chance to finally upend what he called “America’s longest standing myth,” for its title alone.
“The title of it suggests that you’re about to be shocked,” Salas said.
Of legislators and Alamo aficionados who would continue to protect what he called “this fictional story,” Salas said, “they’ve ignored the issue of slavery as best as they possibly could, for as long as they possibly could. And now the genie is out of the bottle.”
A common accusation against historical studies that attempt to reset the Alamo myth is that they represent revisionist history. That charge is leveled by Kevin Roberts, executive director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, who called Forget the Alamo a “fallacy of presentism” and stated in an essay for The Federalist, “The authors would have us believe we can’t accept both as true: that slavery was evil, and that Texas, like America, was founded on noble ideals.”
Calvert said Thursday’s forum is not meant to be a point-counterpoint argument, but a chance for the audience to hear the authors speak about their work, then respond.
“This forum is really about healing, because we have not truly healed the wound that we left for a lot of folks.”
He cited the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a point of inspiration for his efforts to face the truth head-on.
“I think it’s time that we had a reality check and begin to evolve,” Calvert said, to avoid being “behind the times” as the nation undergoes historical retraining in part because of Forget the Alamo.
Winning the argument
Tomlinson said he will happily participate in a discussion about bringing the Alamo story into the 21st century, as “the point of the book is to start a conversation.”
He warned that attempts to shut down discussion based on historical reexamination should be countered at every turn.
“What is really terrifying is that rather than have a conversation, the lieutenant governor and the Legislature are trying to ban people who want to talk about the role of race in Texas history. And that is an authoritarian tactic that we should all be worried about,” he said, calling laws against the teaching of racial history an abuse of power “because they can’t win the argument.”
“The vast majority of historians, over the last 30 years, have identified white supremacy as the underlying motivation for the colonization and the violent land grab of Texas and the Southwest United States,” Tomlinson said. “If you can’t win the argument, then you have no choice but to silence it, if you want to continue to propagate your ideas.”
With a background in conflict resolution, Calvert is prepared to keep the Thursday conversation moving in a positive direction, toward a defined goal.
Citing his own complicated family history, which includes Mexican and Native American ancestry and a Confederate fighter on his mother’s side, he said, “We have to recognize each other’s humanity. We have to recognize each other’s history, and the lessons life teaches us to grow and to be more united and at peace as a human family.”
This article has been corrected to reflect the use of bayonets by Texian soldiers at the Battle of San Jacinto rather than the Battle of the Alamo.