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Rewriting Texas history by writing it out of the budget

March 10th, 2011 under West Texas Talk


History is taking a beating in Texas this spring. In the name of economy, Governor Rick Perry has called for the abolition of the Texas Historical Commission, a state agency that since 1953 has promoted heritage tourism in Texas by putting up historical markers, preserving historic courthouses (including those in Marfa and Fort Davis), creating Heritage Trails, and sponsoring Main Street programs. Heritage tourism is the fastest-growing segment of Texas’s tourism industry, which generates $44 billion and half a million jobs each year. The governor says that the Texas Historical Commission does not contribute to his mission for state government: bringing more money and jobs into the state. Go figure.

At the same time, the new history curriculum for Texas public schools adopted last year by the State Board of Education was given a grade of “D” last month by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that focuses on public education. The Institute summarized its point-by-point critique of the curriculum by saying “history is distorted throughout the document in the interest of political talking points.”  The curriculum, the subject of a huge public fight last year over its right-wing bias (Thomas Jefferson was too liberal to be included in a list of important political philosophers), turned out to be too conservative, or maybe just too nutty, for the conservatives.

In the face of all of this, I am happy to report that the 115th annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Association in El Paso, which I mentioned in a column a few weeks ago, took place in El Paso last week and was a great success. Five hundred and sixty academics and lay historians with an interest in the Southwest gathered from all over the country to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Texas independence and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution by sampling the latest scholarship on both subjects and related southwestern topics. Like most conferences, the program was structured so that there were concurrent sessions, so attendees were faced with a choice, for instance, between going to hear a paper on “The Mexican Revolution Through the Camera’s Lens: The Postcard Entrepreneurs of El Paso” and “Trinidad Coy: From Presidial Soldier at San Antonio de Bejar to Revolutionary, 1826 – 1836.” (From the number of papers on photography and the Mexican Revolution, you might conclude that  there were more photographers than soldiers on the revolution’s battlefields). But some speakers were also scheduled at breakfast, luncheon, and dinner events that were attended by all of the conferees. Their talks were about various aspects of Texas history. Two were outstanding. They were both about twentieth-century Texans.

Adair Margo, El Paso art historian and gallery owner, spoke at the Book Lover’s Breakfast about the 60-year friendship between two El Paso artists, Tom Lea and Jose Cisneros. Lea was the scion of a wealthy El Paso family who went to the Chicago Art Institute and traveled in Europe before returning to El Paso to become a nationally-known muralist, illustrator, and author. Cisneros was the son of Mexican refugees from the revolution who moved from their native village in Durago to Juarez; Cisneros attended a school for the children of Mexican refugees in El Paso and threw papers before and after school to help support his parents. The two men met in 1938, while Lea was painting a mural in the El Paso courthouse. Cisneros was working as a window-trimmer at the White House department store and drawing on the backs of discarded store cards. He would slip into the courthouse at lunchtime to watch Lea paint, and he finally worked up the courage to show Lea some of his own drawings. Lea thought that they were exceptional, arranged an exhibit for Cisneros at the El Paso Public Library, and introduced him to printer Carl Herzog, who gave him his first commission, a set of hand-drawn initial letters. Lea launched Cisneros on his career as one of the Southwest’s most distinguished artists. The two men, despite their very different backgrounds, remained friends and collaborators for the rest of their lives. Both were bilingual, but according to Margo, Lea always called Cisneros “Joe,” and Cisneros always called Lea “Tomas.”

The next day Michael Gillette, the director of Humanities Texas, addressed the Women’s History Luncheon. Gillette spoke about Liz Carpenter, in whose name the Association gives an award for the best book about Texas women’s history published during the year. Carpenter died last year at the age of 89. Gillette told how Carpenter, a member of a patrician family from Salado, Texas, had gone to Washington from the University of Texas School of Journalism in 1942 to become a reporter and eventually, with her husband, Les, to start an independent news bureau there. “I’m grateful for having gone to Washington from the University of Texas,” Carpenter told a group of University of Texas journalism students years later. “I had my journalism degree and my virtue intact, and I still have my journalism degree.” In Washington, Carpenter became known for her wit, her sometimes ribald humor, and her driving energy. She and her husband became members of what was called “the Texas Family,” the group of Texas congressmen and their wives who gathered around Senator Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn in the 1950s.

In 1960 Lady Bird Johnson invited Carpenter to join the Kennedy-Johnson campaign, organizing rallies called Flying Tea Parties across the South. “What we did,” Carpenter once told Gillette, “was to take those funny-talking Kennedy ladies from Massachusetts and hit Texas and other states in the Bible Belt and show them that Roman Catholics don’t have horns and tails.” After the election, Carpenter became a special assistant to Vice-President Johnson, and when he became president she became Lady Bird’s press secretary. But most of Gillette’s talk was about Carpenter’s life in Austin, where she moved after her husband’s death in 1974. “You never knew who you were going to meet when you were invited to Liz’s house,” he said. “It could be Betty Friedan, it could be Ann Richards, it could be someone who was in trouble and just needed a place to stay. But you always knew that you were going to have a good time.”  Gillette, who is a superb public speaker, conjured up Carpenter’s ebullient personality so vividly that those of us who knew her even slightly expected her to be sitting by the door in her motorized wheelchair as we left the room.

This, I think, is the true meaning of the term “living history.”

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Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at

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