'The Myth Itself Becomes a Stand-in.' What Can the Alamo's History Teach Us About Teaching History?

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Alamo, teaching history, Texas history

Less than a month after Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a bill he described as “a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas”—which educators worry will limit how they can talk about the history of systemic racism and current events—the Republican leader put the issue back on the agenda for a special session of the state legislature that began on July 8, as part of a wave of state actions in Republican-led states designed to regulate how the legacy of racism and slavery in the U.S. is taught in public schools.

The Governor can call a special session to address emergencies, which in this case, also includes issues of voting rights, trans students competing in sports and perceived censorship of political views on social media. The Texas Tribune reports that lawmakers have already introduced new legislation that seeks to limit teaching on the histories of marginalized groups in the U.S., even as questions remain about how the bill signed into law on a similar vein will be enforced when it is expected to go into effect in September.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick may have provided a glimpse of what may be to come recently when he cancelled a July 1 event at the state’s history museum with the authors of a new book aimed at debunking myths about the 1836 siege at the Alamo. Confirming that he ordered the talk’s cancellation on Twitter, Patrick tweeted that “fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place” at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Pushback over history that paints a fuller picture of the Tejanos (Mexican Texans) in the state is not new, but in 2021, academic debates are increasingly caught up in the curriculum controversies engulfing school boards nationwide—and, in particular, arguments over whether critical race theory is being taught in schools.

“To me the example of the Alamo is useful in understanding how history gets taken out of context—the story itself has become universalized almost to the point of losing all context,” explains Raúl A. Ramos, an associate professor of history at the University of Houston who teaches an undergraduate Texas history course that some students take to be certified to teach the subject in the state. “At some point the myth itself becomes a stand-in for history.”

TIME spoke with Ramos for context on what’s new (and what’s not) about the current controversy over the Alamo’s history, and how the way Texans tell its story relates to how Americans—especially Mexican Americans—see each other more broadly.

TIME: What do you see as the impact of not teaching the full history of the Alamo?

Ramos: Almost on any [given] day you’ll hear somebody talk about, “this is our Alamo” or “this is our line in the sand.” They’re taking these parts of the myth, versus the reality, and applying it to their particular context. The real story is one of tragedy—particularly for Mexican Americans, and for Tejanos. It’s literally one of brother fighting against brother; of people having to make choices that in the end, ended up hurting them. And look at the building itself: it was a Catholic church that [people might think] was built by Spanish missionaries. To be frank, it wasn’t the missionaries who built the Alamo. It was the indigenous people that they were converting who put stone on top of stone to build the actual physical building that is the Alamo. So one place we can start with the elimination of context is by looking at the building itself as a text that tells us the history of Texas. That history doesn’t start in 1836.

Read entire article at TIME