When the Texas Historical Survey Committee was formed in 1953, the Legislature did not appropriate revenue from the state treasury for its operation. At the same time, The Texas Historical Foundation was created to raise private funds to support the work of the Committee. The Commissioners and Foundation Trustees worked closely together for many years to develop private support for historic preservation. In 1973, the Texas Legislature changed the name of the Survey Committee to the Texas Historical Commission. The name change brought more protective powers, an expanded leadership role, and broader educational responsibilities. As the Legislature began appropriating state resources to the THC over time, the Foundation gradually began to support other entities working to preserve Texas history. As a result, the THC’s philanthropic arm no longer provided private support solely to the THC. For a time, state appropriations plus grants for special projects from the Texas Historical Foundation were sufficient to fund the work of the Commission. However, with the THC's discovery of the La Belle shipwreck and Fort St. Louis, the need for greater philanthropic support and the flexibility of an affiliated nonprofit to manage private contributions and project expenses became imperative.
Incorporated in 1996, the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission was established as a 501c(3) tax exempt nonprofit organization, further designated as a 509a(3) supporting organization whose purpose was to secure donations to support the programs, projects, and activities of the Texas Historical Commission not provided for in the state budget. Despite its name, the Friends is not a membership organization but rather serves as a supporting foundation for the Texas Historical Commission. The Friends was created by THC staff members Dr. Jim Bruseth, Dr. Curtis Tunnell, and Anice Read. Harriett Latimer became the first volunteer chair and president of the new nonprofit organization. Three classes of Trustees with staggered three year terms were created and a simple majority of the Trustees were confirmed by the Commission. These Trustees were known as “Commission Trustees”. In 2007, the Friends requested, and were approved, to have their IRS designation changed to a 501c(3) nonprofit organization further designated as a 509a(1) public charity rather than a supporting organization. This change was made in response to requests from the Friends' foundation donors.
In 2003 the Friends received their first endowment gift, a donor advised fund to support French and Spanish colonial archeology in Texas. That same year, the Friends created the Texas Heroes Society comprised of donors who make an annual unrestricted gift of $1,000 or more to support strategic initiatives, critical needs, and unique opportunities at the Texas Historical Commission. In 2010, the Texas Heroes was expanded to include additional giving levels, the 1836 Society for memorial and honorary gifts, and the Texas Heroes Endowment to support the needs of the THC in perpetuity. The Stetson Society, honoring planned gift donors and donors of cumulative gifts of $25,000 or more, will launch in 2013.
As fundraising for the excavation and conservation of La Belle and Fort St. Louis came to a close, the Friends began actively raising funds for other special projects at the THC with great success. Completed and ongoing projects include conservation of 23 historic Texas flags, the Red River War Battle Sites Project, excavation of Bernardo Plantation, Texas in World War II Initiative, THC Preservation Internship program, Texas in the Civil War Initiative, Historic Courthouse Stewardship Workshops, Historic Cemeteries Program, Texas Archeological Stewardship Network, educational programs to train volunteer preservationists around the state, First Lady’s Texas Treasures Main Street Award, T. R. Fehrenbach Book Award and other recognition awards for excellence in Texas history and preservation. New projects include historic sites collection conservation and education and interpretation, graduate internships in conservation, and Texas in the Cold War. Since inception, the Friends have raised over $9 million to support La Belle, Fort St. Louis, and many other projects of the Texas Historical Commission.
History is an essential component of a rich and rewarding life. It drives our desire to know our past, enrich our present, and cultivate the future. We are fortunate, as citizens of Texas, to be surrounded by a magnificent history that has shaped all of our lives. The Friends of the Texas Historical Commission are pleased to play a vital role in the preservation of the real places that tell the real stories of Texas. We invite you to join us on this great adventure.
Trailer from Dreams of Conquest: Excavating the Myth of LaSalle courtesy of Documentary Arts