Texas historical society dispute could shape how state history is taught from battlefields to classrooms
It concerns competing ideological narratives between board members of the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA). The independent non-profit publishes research material and education programs about the Lone Star State. Founded in 1897, TSHA’s output includes the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, the Texas Almanac, the Handbook of Texas, and other books and periodicals frequently cited by classrooms and authors and influences content on Texas historical sites, which include urban museums, Spanish missions, and world-famous revolutionary battlefields. The organization receives taxpayer funds from the Texas legislature.
Retired oilman and philanthropist J.P. Bryan, who became executive director of TSHA last year, told Fox News Digital there had always been a natural bifurcation between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ for much of the organization’s history.
According to its bylaws, the board must comprise half academics, and half non-academics. Per TSHA’s bylaws, the board must be ‘balanced substantially between these two groups,’ with ‘the recognition that limited flexibility must be exercised where unusual circumstances dictate.’
That balance helped ensure that the subject matter was never overtly politicized and stayed objective. That is, until the past decade or so when the organization began a gradual shift toward a more progressive, liberal narrative of Texas history.
‘A lot of us who were non-academics were really worried about the financial wherewithal [and] were not necessarily looking at the content of our publications … and other things we were disseminating,’ Bryan said. ‘So, we just assumed that we were always going along in our natural format, properly representing our traditional view that we have a great history made by exceptional people.’
Per Bryan’s account, academic board members started to emphasize marginalized groups and the plight of victims. Figures such as Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and the Texas Rangers, once lauded as heroes in Texas history, had become villains.
‘My concern is that we’re only writing one vernacular now, and it’s that all our traditional heroes are villains of some sort,’ Bryan said.
TSHA member Dr. Jody Edward Ginn backed up this contention, telling Fox News Digital that other members started to refer to themselves as ‘activist scholars.’
‘Those are mutually exclusive concepts there. They just don’t blend together, because activists have an agenda and a narrative,’ Ginn said. ‘Whether you believe it’s right or wrong is irrelevant … an honest scholar cannot start with knowing how it’s going to end.’
A TSHA member for nearly 20 years, Ginn said he became a pariah after nominating Wallace Jefferson, Texas’ first Black Supreme Court Chief Justice of Texas to the board in place of the leadership’s preferred candidate, a White, leftist activist scholar.
‘[TSHA President] Nancy Baker Jones herself, as incoming president, tried to stop in violation of the bylaws,’ Ginn said. ‘Since [Chief Historian] Walter Buenger and Nancy Baker Jones, and some of these other folks got on the board, they’ve started consolidating power.’
The board’s ideological shift was cemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s when, according to Bryan, the board, ‘under the cover of dark,’ started filling the non-academic seats with academics. It now consists of 12 academics and eight non-academics.
The gradual change in narrative, alleged Bryan, led to losses in membership and declining attendance at events.
‘I saw incredible changes, but the thing I found so distressing is that 90% of our membership, nothing that we were doing would appeal to them, which is insane,’ Bryan said. ‘And the 90% – the non-academics are 90% of our funding. So, the academics contribute 1%, but they want to tell us what we are and what we’re going to do.’
Bryan, a veteran businessman, implemented changes to help improve the organization’s finances. But rather than earn him praise, those changes irked other board members, primarily TSHA President Nancy Baker Jones.
Tensions came to a head last month when, according to Bryan, Jones called an emergency board meeting to fire him. On May Day, Bryan filed a temporary restraining order against Jones, arguing that the board’s decisions held no weight since it was technically not abiding by its bylaws.
‘I knew that if we’re going to have a discussion where I was going to defend myself, from her charges, about things like I hadn’t raised any money – and I raised a million dollars – that I hadn’t presented a budget, which I did at the annual meeting,’ Bryan said.
‘In the six months, for six months, I did more for the organization than the other three executive directors had done last 10 years. But they couldn’t stand the idea that I was threatening their vernacular of history.’
Bryan clarified that he is not out to impose a traditional view of history but to ensure that competing narratives have a fair hearing.
‘When both sides are represented at the table, you have those healthy arguments, ‘this is my view, and that’s your view,’ so the listeners can make their own judgments from the arguments that they hear,’ Bryan said. ‘If there’s only one narrative there that’s dominating the entire discussions and all the material and content, then you’re not going to have that debate.’
A Galveston judge was scheduled weigh Bryan’s temporary restraining order on Friday, but a continuance has reportedly been sought which could delay that hearing.
‘This is a fight. The next six months is going to determine the entire future of the way Texas history is taught and colleges across the entire state,’ Bryan said.
Fox News Digital has reached out to Buenger and Jones for their side of the story but did not hear back.