Those wild and crazy Texas State Historical Association conventions
By LONN TAYLOR
Every year about this time I write a column about the annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Association, mostly because I have been a member for 40 years and because I enjoy their meetings so much. After all, how many learned societies in the United States have ever held a session where the entire audience ended up singing W. Lee O’Daniel’s “Beautiful, Beautiful, Texas,” as the audience did at Gene Fowler’s session on border radio stations at the annual meeting in Austin a few years ago? And how many learned societies can boast that about half their members are amateurs, who come together once a year to share their love of a subject with academics? Certainly not the American Medical Association, or the American Society of Civil Engineers. In fact, “learned society” is a term deliberately chosen by the State Historical Association over “professional association” to emphasize the fact that many of its members are not academics who make a living by teaching and researching Texas history, but just folks who learn about it and write about it because they love it. After all, the original meaning of “amateur” was “one who loves.”
The State Historical Association is often confused, understandably, with the State Historical Commission. While both have worthy aims, the two are quite different. The Texas Historical Commission is a state agency, funded by the state legislature and endowed with certain legal regulatory powers that enable it to protect our built and archaeological historical resources. It places markers on historic structures, maintains a register of state historic sites, approves nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, and provides funds and expertise for the restoration of historic courthouses, including the ones in Marfa and Fort Davis. The Texas Historical Commission plays a vital role in preserving our state’s history, and it is in bad trouble at the moment, facing an unprecedented 70% budget cut from the legislature. So if you care about preserving Texas’s concrete past, write your state senator and state representative right now.
The Texas State Historical Association, on the other hand, is a private, non-profit organization, with offices at the University of North Texas in Denton. It is supported by membership dues, endowment income, donations, and income from publications. The Association publishes a quarterly journal, The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, as well as about four books a year. It operates several school programs to encourage the study of Texas history, including the Junior Historians and Texas History Day. It maintains an on-line presence through the New Handbook of Texas and a complete back run of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, which can be consulted any time by any one, free. The standard response by historians to anyone with a question about Texas history is, “Have you checked in the Handbook? Have you looked in the Quarterly?” Since the Quarterly has been published since 1898, there is a lot of accumulated knowledge in it.
The founders of the Association were men and women whose memories reached back to the days before Texas was part of the United States. Member John Files Tom, who died in 1906, fought at San Jacinto. Rip Ford, who stalked out of the Association’s organizational meeting when his motion to exclude women from full membership was defeated but consented to become a charter member anyway, arrived in Texas in 1836. Oran Roberts, the Association’s first president, opened his law office in San Augustine in 1841. Over the years the Association’s presidents have included Senator John H. Reagan, the postmaster-general of the Confederacy; David F. Houston, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of agriculture, and J.P. Bryan, Jr., Houston oilman, owner of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, and a collateral descendant of Stephen F. Austin.
I usually write about the State Historical Association after their annual meeting in March so that I can report on the best sessions, but this year I am writing before the meeting, because this year’s meeting will be in El Paso from March 3 to 5 and I want to encourage all my readers to go to it. It will be at the Camino Real Hotel (the old Paso del Norte) and the sessions will start at 9am Thursday, March 3 and run until noon on Saturday. There is a non-member registration fee of $95 for the whole meeting, or you can become a member for $50 and pay a $75 registration fee. You can also buy a one-day pass for $40. All fees can be paid at the registration desk at the hotel, or you can pay them on the Association’s website, tshaonline.org.
This year’s program will include 37 sessions spread over three days. Three or four papers on the same general topic will be presented at each session. There will be several sessions on the Mexican Revolution of 1910 (at least one will take place in the hotel’s Pancho Villa Room), and for real revolution aficiandos there will be a Sunday afternoon walking tour led by David Dorado Romo of sites in El Paso associated with the Revolution, including the roof of the hotel itself, from which El Pasoans viewed several battles in Juarez. There will also be sessions on the Buffalo Soldiers, Texas water law, border security, border folklore, and several other topics of specific interest to Far West Texans. And, just to show that we are not complete stick-in-the-muds with our heads in the distant past, there will be a session on the Beat Generation in Texas. (Can that really have been fifty years ago? I think I still have my bongo drums somewhere.) The complete list of all sessions and papers can be found at tshaonline.org.
For me, the high point of the meeting will be the live auction of Texana in the hotel’s Dome Bar at 4pm on Friday. It will be the high point because I will be one of the auctioneers, along with my friend Light Cummins, the State Historian of Texas, and because there is nothing so exciting as an auction in a bar.
So sign up, saddle up, and head for El Paso March 3 through 5.
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Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk