For history organizations, these are interesting times. Today we find many people fighting over history. In my time as CEO of the Alamo, I observed more people preferred to fight about the history of the Alamo rather than fight for it.
When we fight about history, we find ourselves arguing about what we want our history to be. Often these arguments are based upon our opinions and not historical facts.
Former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1983, “First, get your facts straight. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Second, decide to live with the facts.”
The public discourse about the Alamo and Texas Revolution is tainted by our personal perceptions, feelings, and preconceived opinions. We hear people from all sides say they want the truth, but the reality is they want their truth. That version of the truth is grounded in opinion and belief, not necessarily what the facts support.
For example, the San Antonio Conservation Society, in their application for the State Antiquities Landmark designation for the Woolworth Building wrote that “the San Antonio Express-News photographed history in the making at the Woolworth’s cafeteria, where the store’s equal service policy also helped San Antonio acquire the distinction of being the first city in the South to receive publicity for the desegregation of its lunch counters.”
The Conservation Society opposed the demolition of the Woolworth Building, so to support their political aims, they presented what they wished to be true as historical fact to the Texas Historical Commission. In reality, the photograph of “history in the making” wasn’t taken at the Woolworth Building (it was taken at the Kress Building) and San Antonio wasn’t the first southern city to receive publicity for lunch counter desegregation. Even though these assertions were totally discredited by the Alamo, the “truth” presented by the Conservation Society continues to be advanced today.
Now the recently released book Forget the Alamo concludes that “spending $450 million to build a monument to white supremacy as personified by Bowie, Travis, and Crockett would be a grave injustice to a city that desperately needs better schools, jobs, and services.”
Regarding the Alamo’s history, author Bryan Burrough asserts that “slavery was the undeniable linchpin of all of this.” While Burrough is a fine writer, with this assertion he displays that he has co-written a book to get attention with audacious claims. The notion that slavery undergirded the Texas Revolution is not supported by facts, however. What the authors have given the public is what their emotions tell them is true and the thesis of the book was rooted in a bias they sought but failed to confirm.
Respected historian James E. Crisp, a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University said Forget the Alamo had over a dozen minor errors with “the most important flaw” being its emphasis on slavery.
He added that while “the preservation of slavery was at stake during the Texas Revolution,” it wasn’t the chief motive. What Crisp’s comments demonstrate is that our history must be constrained by the evidence. Those who advance a subjective history, absent of evidence, are actually writing fiction.
Regretfully, today we find those who want to advance their own subjective version of history by marginalizing and belittling the history of others. The authors of Forget the Alamo and many academics have claimed that the “John Wayne” or “Anglo heroic” narrative is how most Texans perceive their history. It is simply absurd to diminish the Texas Revolution by pointing out the errors and depiction of the Alamo in John Wayne’s The Alamo, a theatrical production of 60 years ago. This film was a product of its time and is simply irrelevant to the history we know today. Certainly, in the past, not all history has been equally valued, and race and ethnicity were once factors in what history was published. But we have moved on from those times and must continue moving forward. No group in a historical narrative gains by diminishing any another.
Texas has an amazing story and history that should be celebrated by all Texans and Americans. But it must be the full and truthful telling of all the participants, regardless of race, background, or ethnicity. Sadly, the media give more attention to those who disparage the Alamo than to the many of us who advance telling the full history of the Alamo, rooted in fact with as many Tejano heroes as Texians.
There is a better path forward. History must be guided by the facts, not our opinions or wishes. This credible way forward is the best way to advance and honor the history of Texas and the Alamo. Per Moynihan, we need to get the facts straight and then live with those facts. Texans must take a stand, as did the Alamo defenders. We must stand for the accurate, fact-based telling of the history of Texas and the Alamo.