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The Texas Historical Commission Removed Books on Slavery From Plantation Gift Shops

An agency spokesperson claimed that the move had nothing to do with politics. Internal emails show otherwise.

After visiting the Varner-Hogg plantation an hour south of Houston, amateur historian Michelle Haas seemed incensed by what she had seen. At an exhibit that details the farm’s use as a sugar plantation worked by at least 66 slaves in the early nineteenth century, she’d watched an informational video. To her mind, it focused too much on slavery at the site and not enough on the Hogg family, which had turned its former home into a museum celebrating Texas history. She’d also seen books in the visitor center gift shop written by Carol Anderson and Ibram X. Kendi, two Black academic historians who have been outspoken on the issue of systemic racism. Haas denies having been angered but emailed criticisms to David Gravelle, a board member of the Texas Historical Commission, the agency that oversees historical sites at the direction of leaders appointed by Governor Greg Abbott. “What a s—show is this video,” Haas wrote on September 2, 2022. “Add to that the fact that the activist staff member doing the buying for the gift shop thinks Ibram X. Kendi and White Rage have a place at a historic site.”

Over the next eight months, Haas continued to email Gravelle, advocating for such books to be removed. In turn, Gravelle, a marketing executive based in Dallas, took up the cause internally at the Historical Commission, calling on agency staff to do away with the titles Haas didn’t think belonged at the gift shops. As of November of this year, the Texas Historical Commission no longer sells White Rage by Anderson or Stamped From the Beginning by Kendi, or 23 other works to which Haas later objected, at two former slave plantations in Brazoria County, including Varner-Hogg. Among the literature no longer available for purchase is an autobiography of a slave girl, a book of Texas slave narratives, the celebrated novel Roots by Alex Haley, and the National Book Award–winning Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. 

The Texas Historical Commission declined to provide Texas Monthly with a list of titles no longer for sale. Chris Florance, a spokesperson for the agency, said many books were removed from the historical sites as part of an effort that he said was launched in March to reduce inventory as the agency transitions to a new point-of-sale software system. Emails acquired by Texas Monthly through an open-records request reveal, however, that Gravelle was concerned about the way those books presented Texas history and about potential attention from state lawmakers over what books were available for purchase. The emails also show that he had raised those concerns in February, before the agency decided to change its software system.