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Exhibit Hopes To Teach Students About Violent Texas History

Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

Texas is a state proud of its history. But, like any history, the Lone Star State’s has largely been written by its victors.

One group of scholars is trying to change that. They say the mythology and heroism of the Texas Rangers isn’t the whole story.

Many Mexicans fled north of the border during the Mexican revolution, only to be met with discrimination and indiscriminate violence in the U.S. Rangers labeled Mexicans “bandits” and took to indiscriminately killing hundreds, if not thousands. They killed with impunity, and without fear of legal consequences.

Texas Public Radio’s Virginia Alvino reports on the scholars’ efforts to get Texans to remember these stories, and, get them into classrooms.

The history of South Texas in the 1910s is often forgotten, according to John Moran Gonzalez.

"It’s a story of the violence that was used, sanctioned by the state at that time, to displace Texas Mexicans from their land, from their civil rights, and their lives," says Gonzalez. 

Gonzalez is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and among a group of scholars in the group “Refusing to Forget.” They work to tell the story of the Mexicans who fled their country during the Mexican revolution at the turn of the century, and the violence they were met with, at the hands of the Texas Rangers.

“There was a tacit understanding that the policing was, the rangers were to have a free hand and do whatever they thought necessary to maintain the new order of white supremacy in south Texas," says Gonzalez.

A new exhibit at the Bullock state history museum combines artifacts and documents of the era. Clothing, family photos, government reports.It’s entitled “Life and Death on the Border: 1910 to 1920.” Gonzalez points out a gruesome photo of white men on horseback with lassos around the bodies of four Mexican “bandits” as they were known. It’s on a postcard that circulated for decades.

"All of that goes to show how normalized and how accepted this kind of racialized violence was," says Gonzalez. He says this exhibit is an attempt to make Texas remember, and redress those injustices.

"This is the first time hearing about any of this," say educators from Uvalde, TX. George Menchaca, Joel Escamilla, and Jacob Matthews are 7th grade history teachers. They attended a panel discussion about the exhibit with “Refusing to Forget” about the exhibit, and the stories.

Escamilla has been a teacher for 15 years. His response to learning about this history of racial violence?

“Actually it’s a little bit of anger, I feel a little bit upset," says Escamilla. During high school, none of this was ever brought up. The state gives us the information what it wants us to pass on to the students.”

And these educators say these issues, aren’t really a part of the required curriculum. They say they’d like to incorporate these stories, but they’ll need the resources and materials, and, a way to fit it into the existing standards.

Their Uvalde students are primarily Hispanic, a lot of them don’t really know their own history.

"The civil rights movement also had a lot to do with Hispanic Americans," says Menchaca. "They didn’t realize they were being segregated as well. A lot of them are real clueless to this is part of their history, as much as civil rights movement was an African American issue, it was equally in a lot of ways, especially here in Texas, it was Hispanic American.”  

Menchaca and Matthews say history, including Texas history, isn’t always black and white."Well you look at men like Sam Houston, Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie, they were heroes but you look back at their history, they were people with big fallibilities. Houston was an alcoholic, Bouie was a land swindler. They were human. What they did at the Alamo was great, but they were still just human.” 

Although these teachers say their students have a lot of pride in Texas, they’d be up for the challenge of learning this lesser known history.

Ben Johnson agrees. He’s a professor at Loyola University, and a member of “Refusing to Forget.” He says the repercussions of racial violence can be felt today, so students throughout the state deserve to know the stories behind it.

"They know some of the realities of it, whether they know these events or not. So you’re giving them a history that more of them can find themselves in," says Johnson. Besides he says, the education system should have more faith in students at all levels, to handle tough, nuanced discussions.

"Slavery, Indian dispossession, civil rights questions. They get that," says Johnson. "They can deal with that. Sometimes it’s difficult, but the idea that our history is complicated and there are dark chapters in it, that’s not something that I have to make them believe. Like, they already know that.” 

“Refusing to Forget” is working with the Bullock to promote educational opportunities, developing curricular materials, web materials, establishing historical markers across the state, and hopefully, designing a traveling exhibition. 

As far as acknowledging Texas’ memory of racially driven violence – Johnson says this exhibit itself, is a meaningful first step.

"I think it’s really remarkable," says Johnson, "that a public institution in the state of Texas, given the tenor of national and state politics, would be willing to mount an exhibit that takes an unflinching look at one of the darkest chapters of Texas and American history.”