A popular joke in the Soviet Union went like this: “The future is certain. Only the past is unpredictable.” The quip poked fun at both the Communist party’s confidence that socialism would soon rule the world and the way that its leaders, such as Joseph Stalin, demanded frequent rewrites of history. Onetime allies of Stalin would be purged from the party and then airbrushed out of photos; after the execution of the head of the Soviet secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, his entry in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was pasted over with extra information about the Bering Sea.
That old Soviet joke has a new resonance in Texas, where the Legislature has launched a fresh effort to airbrush the past. Last year, state lawmakers—including every Republican in both chambers—voted to pass a bill establishing a panel called the “1836 Project,” named after the year the Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico and intended to “promote patriotic education and increase awareness of the Texas values.” After the bill became law, Governor Greg Abbott appointed a nine-member 1836 Project Advisory Committee to publish a summary of the project’s work and author a Texas history pamphlet to be distributed to all Texans when they receive driver’s licenses. Due to be completed by September 1, 2022, the pamphlet, according to the law, must describe Texas’s “founding and foundational principles” and how they have stimulated “boundless prosperity across the state.”
The Legislature modeled the 1836 initiative on former president Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which, in the closing weeks of the Trump administration, published an overview of American history meant to serve as a road map for school curricula across the country. The American Historical Association, the country’s oldest and largest group of professional historians, dismissed the 1776 Commission’s report as relying on “falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.” The backgrounds of the committee members of Texas’s 1836 Project, and a draft version of the pamphlet it plans to produce, indicate it will be similarly flawed.
To chair the 1836 Project, Abbott tasked Kevin Roberts, who holds a PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He served on Trump’s 1776 Commission and called its report an “excellent piece of scholarship.” Currently the president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., Roberts previously held the post of chief executive officer of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing group based in Austin and funded in large part by oil and gas interests. It advocates for, among many positions, privatization of education. Roberts declared at the first meeting of the committee in January that the 1836 Project would seek to proclaim that “the United States of America, and especially Texas, are places where we can live the dream of prosperity and liberty and flourishing better than anywhere else on Earth”—an assertion he dubbed a self-apparent “fact.”
The chair of the subcommittee in charge of drafting the pamphlet, Don Frazier, has similar ideological bearings. Frazier received his PhD in history from Texas Christian University, and he now directs the Texas Center at Schreiner University in Kerrville, an hour’s drive northwest of San Antonio. He’s authored several books of history that gloss over centuries of slavery in Texas and minimize its horrors. In the introduction to his 2015 book, Blood on the Bayou, for example, he passingly mentions what he calls “gossip” about brutal enslavers. He quotes selectively from interviews of formerly enslaved men and women to argue that some believed slavery “provided [them] a good life.”
Frazier also founded the McWhiney History Education Group, named after his TCU mentor, the historian Grady McWhiney, who has been called the intellectual “godfather of . . . the neo-Confederate movement.” In the late 1990s, a professor Michael Hill, also a student of McWhiney, served as a fellow of the McWhiney Group. He established the League of the South, which advocates that Southern states should once again secede from the Union. McWhiney joined the League of the South, but Frazier told the Southern Poverty Law Center in a 2004 interview that the league turned toward racism just as his mentor began suffering from dementia.