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What The 1836 Project Leaves Out in Its Version of Texas History

The legislature established a committee last year to “promote patriotic education.” Drafts of one of its pamphlets reveal an effort to sanitize history.

Airbrushed from this account are stories such as those that Ben Simpson told interviewers in 1937 about how his enslaver force-marched him as a small child from Georgia to new land in Texas along with other captives and shot and killed his mother in front of him. Also missing are stories from other former slaves who recall a life of harsh sunup-to-sundown labor from childhood to old age, watching loved ones sold away, runaways ripped apart by dogs when caught, and enslaved women raped by masters. These stories are not “gossip” but lived tragedies that are included in all mainstream histories of Texas during slavery.

The pamphlet also doesn’t mention how Reconstruction-era white terrorist violence erased the civil liberties African Americans gained through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. According to the late Barry Crouch, a historian of the Reconstruction era in Texas, whites in the state murdered about one of every one hundred African American men between the ages of 15 and 49 from 1865 to 1868. The Ku Klux Klan murdered newly enfranchised voters, and there’s a story of one enraged white man with a sword chopping an African American woman in Huntsville in half when she dared celebrate her emancipation. The pamphlet grants only 42 words to the bloody tragedy of the era: “With the end of Reconstruction in 1876, when given an opportunity to overhaul its state constitution, pro-Southern white Texans responded by creating a weakened government while defending the concept of states’ rights as expressed in the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

The pamphlet not only erases atrocities, it also scrubs the history of dissenting political movements such as the left-wing Populists of the late nineteenth century. It provides no insights into the struggle for women’s suffrage and for Tejano civil rights, and it erases the existence of gay, bisexual, and trans Texans. By suggesting that the Texas story is one of relentless progress and by burying nearly all unpleasantness, the simplistic tale woven by the 1836 Project leads readers to believe that any advances in justice, always described in passive voice, just happened, as if showered upon Texas soil by invisible benevolent forces. The pamphlet’s crafters want the public to forget that most progress in the state and the nation—from rural electrification to voting rights for women and minorities—has been won by the hard and dangerous work of activists and sympathetic politicians.