In convening a public forum on the controversial new book Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, Bexar County Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert reminded the audience once again that the Alamo is a church.

If the so-called “Shrine of Texas Liberty” does indeed retain that status, it is a church with warring families seated on opposite sides of the aisle, bickering as their offspring marry into a future that ideally includes them all.

Most attendees at Thursday evening’s event seemed to be from just one side of the aisle, eager to understand a more inclusive history of the Alamo beyond the vaunted myth.

There was still a good deal of vigorous discussion during the tightly controlled, 90-minute event, among Calvert, the book’s three co-authors — Jason Stanford, Chris Tomlinson, and Bryan Burrough — co-moderator Mario Salas, and 150 members of the public who crowded into seating areas on the first floor and balcony of the Double Height Courtroom of the Bexar County Courthouse.

The Jerusalem of Texas

Calvert gaveled his event to order at 7:02 p.m. and stated that order would be maintained throughout the discussion, despite what he said were some reported threats of planned disruption.

Calm prevailed, with Calvert, each of the three authors — seated at the dais in chairs normally occupied by Calvert’s fellow commissioners — and Salas each offering opening remarks.

Stanford set the tone for the evening by declaring that the myth of the Alamo, which he termed “the Jerusalem of Texas” for its quasi-religious status as a touchstone of American history, has been “othering the dominant population” in San Antonio, and indeed all of Texas — a situation he said is no longer “a sustainable operation.”

His comment drew vigorous applause.

Calvert praised Alamo Trust CEO Kate Rogers for acknowledging publicly that historic sites can benefit from a full telling of their complicated histories, without diminishing their appeal. When Calvert and fellow Bexar County Commissioners recently approved $25 million in funding toward the $450 million Alamo redevelopment project, they specified that the history told at the site must be inclusive.

Salas told the audience that he learned early on that “everything in there is a lie” after a family visit to the Alamo, while Stanford said that as a political operative working for State Sen. José Menendez, he learned from prominent members of the Tejano population that few visit the Alamo because they feel it’s “white people’s history.”

Richard Gonzalez agreed. As chairman of the state district 19 chapter of the Tejano Democrats, a political advocacy group, he said, “this book resonates a lot with what we’re going through as Tejanos.”

Echoing Stanford’s opening salvo, Gonzalez said, “the Alamo is a part of San Antonio, but we’re not a part of it. It’s never going to be really successful like it’s supposed to be until they start including all people that died in the Alamo.”

Shifting the perspective

Jerry Patterson, who served from 2003-2015 as commissioner of the General Land Office of Texas, which oversees the Alamo historic site, registered the evening’s primary objection, calling Forget the Alamo a work of opinion rather than fact. His observation drew loud claps from a single audience member.

Holding up a copy of the book with yellow post-it notes marking specific passages, Patterson disagreed that the preservation and expansion of slavery throughout the Republic of Texas was a main motivation for the rebellion against Mexico that resulted in the 1836 battle.

Tomlinson agreed with Patterson that slavery was not “100% of the cause of this conflict.” However, he argued, according to historical documents, “it’s indisputable that [slavery] was the basic, underlying cause.”

Tomlinson called the book an “argument” rather than a textbook, and acknowledged that people can disagree with its assertions. But, he said the inclusion of perspectives beyond what the book calls the “Heroic Anglo Narrative,” is crucial.

“All we’ve done is, we’ve shifted the perspective so that it is not 100% focused on the Anglo so-called ‘heroes,'” he said, then expanded that picture “to a wider, more panoramic perspective.”

By doing so, Tomlinson said, “suddenly, these young men rushing the walls of the Alamo on behalf of Santa Anna to defend their sovereign nation from being split apart by foreign invaders who’ve crossed the border illegally — the day that we can honor those Mexican soldiers as having fought for their country with bravery, as much as we honor the people who fought to defend the Alamo — then we can have a conversation about reconciliation and honest accounting.”

His comments drew the loudest applause of the evening, as much of the audience seemed in agreement with the tone and information in the book.

After taking several questions from the audience, Calvert noted that the 90-minute period for discussion had ended, and concluded the proceedings.

As many audience members lined up to have their books signed by the authors, Calvert seemed pleased. “I think we got the conversation moving,” he said. “There’s lots of folks who are ready to have the right conversation, so I think the seeds are going to grow.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...