Legend says that when Texas Ranger Bill McDonald stepped off a train at the site of a town in turmoil (said to be caused by a pending prizefight) in the 1890s, the townspeople were aghast that their plea for help was answered only by him. He responded, “there’s just one prizefight, isn’t there?”
That’s the origin of the unofficial Rangers motto—“One Riot, One Ranger.” And that ethos is playing out in a Galveston County courtroom, as Texas history buff J.P. Bryan challenges the woke takeover of the Texas State Historical Association.
Bryan, a former energy industry executive and descendent of early Texas settler William Joel Bryan, has been involved with the Texas State Historical Association since he was a young man; his father and grandfather had served on the TSHA board, and he did too, in the 1980s. Last year, he returned to the organization as a volunteer executive director, in hopes of righting a ship that was listing dangerously to the left and ensuring that TSHA conferences were properly critical of Texas history—and only critical.
That’s why the TSHA’s annual meeting in March featured seminars titled “Activism and Erasure in 20th Century Mexican American Education in Central and South Texas” and “Queer History in Texas.” But even more telling was a session titled “Violence in Texas: Vigilantism and White Supremacy Past and Present,” which highlighted the works of historians actively working to deconstruct the “myths” of Texas.
No wonder its donations dropped. The TSHA isn’t a state agency, though it publishes the canonical Handbook of Texas Online, and it plays a big role in how history is taught to Texas schoolchildren. It relies on donations. Yet it was floundering and close to bankruptcy.
Here’s how observer Michelle Haas of the Texas History Trust put it:
“The Texas State Historical Association was in the red,” she wrote. “Again. They had a Chief Historian not well-liked by the public whose contract was up and who was overdue for a job evaluation. They had an Executive Director on the way out. They had a board not quite in compliance with the organization’s bylaws. Enter J.P. Bryan, Jr. — Texas history preservationist, collector, philanthropist, founder of the Bryan Museum, retired oilman.”
Bryan’s first task as its new executive director last fall was to shore up its finances. He paid the bills from his own pocket, and restarted fundraising and development efforts. He sought to bring the group into compliance with its own bylaws, which include an important provision: The board should be equally balanced between academic members and non-academic members. The imbalance is what’s pulling the organization left, Bryan believes—and all he is asking for is the proper balance.
You’d think that TSHA leadership would have been thrilled—or at least appreciative of his work to save the TSHA. Instead, they began efforts to move Bryan out of the executive director position, so they could get back to recasting Texas history along the lines of the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” (For example, it supports a curriculum for Texas students titled “Texan Identities: Moving beyond Myth, Memory, and Fallacy in Texas History” and its chief historian has called the Alamo “insignificant.”)
TSHA called a board meeting with the clear intention of firing Bryan. He filed a lawsuit to stop the meeting, and won an injunction. A full hearing will be held in Galveston on May 30.
But there’s another aspect of this story worth mentioning. “1883: A Bass Reeves Story” is slated to become the next hit “Yellowstone” spinoff. Filming has begun near Fort Worth, and Texas historians should see booming interest in Reeves and other Texas lawmen. But don’t look to the TSHA to capitalize on a new hit television show, as TSHA leadership instead wants to cancel the Texas Rangers.
Still, it’s another (more documented) quote from Ranger Captain McDonald that fits here: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-comin’.”
J.P. Bryan is in the right—and he’s going to keep on a-comin. And this is how we save history from the woke scolds.