Sugar-coated History

By Billy Liggett | Editor, Campbell Magazine

Growing up in Texas, I was taught to always “Remember the Alamo.” Not just the story of the Alamo, but that battle cry as well. It’s a pride point of being a Texan. When the odds are against you, remember Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap and those brave freedom-loving Texans who staved off General Santa Anna and a much larger Mexican army for 13 days before going down in a blaze of glory.

As an impressionable 12-year-old kid who was new to the Lone Star State when I stepped into my first seventh-grade Texas History class, the story hooked me. How could it not? After a family trip a few years later to San Antonio and a visit to the remnants of that old stone fort, I practically declared myself a Texan and denounced my Ohio upbringing.

When the subject of “whitewashing” American history comes up, I remember the Alamo, at least the way it was taught to us. What we got was more the legend of the Alamo —the glamorized, Disney-produced version of history starring John Wayne, meant to stir our young emotions and invoke patriotism. I wonder now if there was really any “teaching” involved.

No surprise, the history of the Alamo is under scrutiny today. A new book, “Forget the Alamo” — written by three Texas historians — argues that the fight for Texas’ independence in 1836 was less about freedom and more about preserving slavery. One writer called it “the undeniable lynchpin” of the war. The “Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin — the man whose name adorns the college I attended after high school — wrote in 1832, “Nothing is wanted but money, and Negros are necessary to make it.”

Not everybody agrees with the slavery argument (then again, we’re still arguing about the Civil War, too). Many say it simply wasn’t prevalent in Texas at the time (very few plantations), and the fight against Mexico was more about proper political representation and the absence of rights that America’s colonies were enjoying at the time.

There was little of this debate in my history classes, especially when it came to the Alamo. We were the heroes, and the Mexicans were the enemy. Santa Anna was Darth Vader. Teaching it this way glosses over the many gray areas of Texas history, and more importantly, it breeds implicit bias at a young age, especially in a state where Hispanic men and women will become the majority in the coming years.

This summer, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill creating “The 1836 Project,” designed to “promote patriotic education” about the year Texas seceded from Mexico. It’s a law that promotes values over truth. It’s a law that doesn’t give young people the chance — or enough credit — to think critically.

My oldest child will enter the seventh grade next year, and I do worry about the history she’s being taught in our public schools in North Carolina. Will she learn about the racially motivated Wilmington massacre of 1898? Are we teaching about Eugenics and the state’s sterilization of more than 7,500 people between 1929 and 1974?

I don’t ask this because I want to sow division in our schools. I believe the truth sets us free. Sugar coating history makes us ignorant.

Quite the opposite from Texas’ 1836 Project, North Carolina’s State of Education approved new social studies standards for all grade levels earlier this year that “emphasize the study of the country’s progress toward racial equity” and provide a more “comprehensive and honest” look at U.S. history. So there’s hope.

Of course, not everything I learned about the Alamo was a lie. Davy Crockett was far more complex than what Walt Disney or John Wayne showed us, but he certainly had his heroic qualities. He fought President Andrew Jackson in the 1820s over Jackson’s Indian Removal Act . He fought bravely and died at the Alamo. He was also a slave owner who sold his human property to revive a struggling political career before going to Texas. And he never actually went by the name “Davy.”

Texas became an independent republic in 1836 and drafted its constitution nine years later. The entire eighth article of that constitution was dedicated to slave ownership.

This is history. Sometimes, it’s a bitter pill.


Photo: Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, The Fall of the Alamo or Crockett’s Last Stand, c. 1903. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.