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When Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill this week creating what’s called the “1836 Project,” he touted it as a way to promote the state’s exceptionalism. The name mirrors the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project,” which examines U.S. history from the date when enslaved people first arrived on American soil.
But House Bill 2497 centers on the year Texas won independence from Mexico and is meant to promote a “patriotic education” to the state’s residents.
“To keep Texas the best state in the United States of America, we must never forget why Texas became so exceptional in the first place,” Abbott said in a video on Twitter before passing the law.
Under HB 2497, the 1836 Project is essentially just the name of an advisory committee designed to promote the state’s history to Texas residents, largely through pamphlets given to people receiving driver’s licenses. It will also award students on their knowledge of the state’s history and values.
But critics are concerned the new project is a part of Republicans’ nationwide push to limit the discussion of critical race theory in schools. House Bill 3979, now awaiting Abbott’s approval, will limit how Texas educators can discuss current events and racism in the U.S. The 1836 Project also requires the promotion of “the Christian heritage of this state.” Another piece of legislation awaiting Abbott’s signature, Senate Bill 797, requires Texas schools to display the term “In God We Trust” across campus buildings if such signage is donated to them.
One controversial aspect of the 1836 Project is its name. Some critics have pointed out that Texas’ independence didn’t apply to all of those living in the state at the time, such as slaves and indigenous groups. The Constitution of the Republic of Texas, passed in 1836, legalized slavery and excluded indigenous groups from gaining independence.
“1836 marked independence for some, but for others marks a period of slavery and pain and exploitation for many, many people who live there,” said Maggie Stern, a youth civic education and engagement coordinator at the Children’s Defense Fund in Texas.
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist for The New York Times who spearheaded “The 1619 Project,” said on Twitter that Texas’ new law is another attempt to hide the nation’s history of racism.
“We’ve been here before,” Hannah-Jones said. “When it comes to slavery, some people have never wanted open debate and honesty. They seek to bury and prohibit instead.”
The law does detail specific historical topics that should be part of the project, including indigenous people, the state’s Spanish and Mexican heritage, Tejanos and Juneteenth. But the legislation doesn’t explain how these specific topics will be contextualized.
The law will take effect Sept. 1 and expire in 2036. The nine-member advisory committee will be charged with promoting the state’s “history of prosperity and democratic freedom.”
Members will be appointed by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, and committee members must be appointed shortly after that date.
The committee also will advise the state’s governor on the state’s core principles and work with state agencies to ensure “patriotic education” is available at state parks, battlefields, monuments, landmarks and other locations deemed crucial to the state’s history.
In addition, the committee will enact the Gubernatorial 1836 Award, which is meant to recognize students for their knowledge of Texas history and independence.
The project will be funded by the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public primary and secondary education across the state. A report compiling the 1836 Project’s recommendations, plans and proposals will be published on the TEA’s website.
Brian Franklin, associate director for the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said that while it is important to teach history, the bill’s use of patriotic education is designed to illustrate only a positive portrayal of the state’s history.
“Patriotic education presumes that the point of studying history is to make you prouder of a particular place or is to make you a particular kind of citizen,” Franklin said. “It presumes that all of those things that you’ll look back to find are positive and good principles.”
Stern said this follows a similar pattern to HB 3979.
“I think they’re both part of the same attempt to whitewash history to create a national mythology that doesn’t address the hard questions of slavery, displacement of indigenous folks, of all these things that have happened,” Stern said.
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, June 10, 2021: A previous version of this story misstated a word Maggie Stern used to describe the period Texas’ independence from Mexico began for some people. She said it marked a period of “exploitation” for many, not a period of “expectoration.”