Claiming a Place in Texas History

At the end of their internship program in August of 2022, we asked the Preservation Scholars’ Class of 2022 the following question: “Many young people (younger millennials and Gen Z) do not necessarily consider history and preservation a cause that is high on their list to support, especially when compared to issues like climate change, race and gender equity, voting rights, etc. How could we best make the case to them for the work that the Texas Historical Commission and the Friends of the THC do, or even broadly a case for historic preservation and for ‘preserving the real places and the real stories’ of Texas? What would bring this specific audience to this work and get them invested in making sure that all the varied and complex stories of Texas history are preserved and told?”

As expected from this group of incredibly talented and passionate young people, the answers we received were direct, deep, and insightful. Bringing the next generation of young people into the work of historic preservation is a challenge—one that we need to take head on, and our scholars have provided us with some guidance on the work we need to do. One thing is clear—young people in Texas want to learn about the history of all Texans, and they want to claim their place in Texas history—as a generational Texan or, like my own two children, as first-generation Texan children of immigrants.

Preservation Scholar Leslie Torres offered these thoughts: “I feel that if the [preservation community] was able to clearly and publicly define its goals [specific] to investigating and showcasing underrepresented histories, young people (especially those interested in intersectional activism) might approach historic preservation more eagerly…. Texas (historically and currently) is far too diverse to stick to a single historical narrative, and it can become exhausting listening to stories that exclude you or other marginalized communities. Make it clear that diverse histories are welcome…through social media, or in public school or college outreach methods.”

Echoing this sentiment, Preservation Scholar Deborah Hill writes with regards to young minorities: “As a first-generation American, I hold as many ties to this country as I do my family’s homeland. Growing up on the border made this easy for me; being able to travel the few yards back and forth allowed me to experience the delicacies and traditions held by my two communities. However, as I grow older and hold conversations with my childhood friends, I’ve realized that a lot of our current frustration about national issues come from uncovering and deconstructing the reality of our growing up…. Many people my age will prioritize climate change and racial and gender equity over historic preservation, but I think if you’re able to highlight the stories of the people they came from and the communities they’re part of, you’ll appeal to the foundational parts of them, and in turn, allow them to grasp an issue they can more feasibly have control over—the facts of their past, and how to learn from it and utilize it in the fight for our future… I feel this translates best into articles or posts made about the unseen heroes and stories of struggle that many communities in Texas were built on. Even if it means just providing a platform for experts on the topic, anything in this direction could only be beneficial…”

Part of the movement toward including diverse young voices in the telling of our histories requires us to look not just at the stories we’re choosing to tell, but who is doing the telling. As Kalyse Houston, our 2022 Clay Preservation Scholar, says, “When trying to appeal to a younger audience or audience of color, there is a conflict of interest between who is telling the stories and who the story is being told to. … In providing a more approachable foundation, an entirely new perspective is opened up. By equaling the playing field, reaching out, and making it evident that all stories are welcome…we open ourselves to be more inclusive. By having the (hi)stories be told by people within their own communities, the youth that are of or interested in that community will follow.” Her words raise an important question: What’s being lost when we aren’t making room for the community who owns the story to do the storytelling?

The U.S. News and World Report lists Texas as the second most diverse state in the United States, with a history that is complex and represents a very diverse population. From the Native Americans who populated the land beginning over 14,000 years ago, to when Europeans arrived on the shores of Texas in the 16th century, all the way to the Texas Revolution, the secession of the state from the Union in 1861 and subsequently its restoration to the Union, the Jim Crow era, the civil rights movement, all the way to present day, the people represented by the history of this state are diverse, and their stories are many and important to share. The charge before us is clear—if we want younger generations involved in historic preservation, we have to build on our commitment to bring more diverse young voices into the room and engage them in the telling of our collective histories. We need to be committed to ensuring that the Texas historical narrative is accurate, authentic, complete, and is presented by professionals who not only reflect the diverse population of the past whose stories they share, but also the diverse population of the state today that they share the stories with. This is how we can create a future for historic preservation that is as strong and vibrant as Texas itself.