The Texas Massacres You’ve Never Heard Of
Professor Benjamin Johnson and the Refusing to Forget Project’s new exhibition, "Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920," sheds new light on one of Texas’ most difficult (and silenced) historical legacies.
On January 23, 2016, Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920 opened at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas. The exhibition brings to light one of Texas' most difficult and silenced historical legacies-- the state-sanctioned anti-Mexican violence perpetrated by Texas Rangers between 1915 and 1916. Though arguably one of the most violent periods in Texas' history, little has been done to memorialize the Tejanos and Mexican Americans murdered by the Rangers and the victims' stories are virtually unknown to the majority of Texas residents. The exhibition is one of the first steps in a coordinated effort to spread public awareness of this history.
Life and Death on the Border is the product of a partnership between the Refusing to Forget project and the Bullock Museum. Founded in 2013 by a group of scholars and Texas residents interested in commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the 1915-1916 massacres, Refusing to Forget works to locate this history, share it with others, and reshape common understandings of Texas' past. One of the founders of Refusing to Forget is Dr. Benjamin Johnson, Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. In his first book, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans, published in 2003, Professor Johnson discovered that the origins of the Mexican American civil rights movement were rooted in this period of anti-Mexican violence, a key finding that connects the events of 1915 and 1916 to later Mexican American history. In search of ways to share what they knew, the Refusing to Forget team partnered with the Bullock Museum to undertake its first major project: the exhibition that became Life and Death on the Border.
"There are some that don't want the history taught or heard. The Texas Rangers, for some people, are like saints. They're not to be, in any way, tarnished," Dr. Johnson said. "But 100 years later, I think it's time to talk about … the significance of the inclusion of Latinos and Mexicanos within the history of Texas and the United States.”
Dr. Johnson added, “There is a reluctance to tackle dark chapters in textbooks. You need them to be written in a way that is willing to tackle controversial things and not just stick to a sanitized history. Human beings are complicated, and our history is complicated, too.”
On view in the exhibition are artifacts that illustrate the militarization of the Texas border region, such as a 1915 postcard titled "Dead Mexican Bandits," which shows Texas Rangers with their lassos around the corpses of those slain during a raid. The exhibition also follows the 1919 investigation of the Texas Rangers by the the Texas Legislature for the torture and murder of civilians. A copy of the Zimmerman Telegram moves the story through heightened tensions between Mexico and the United States during World War I, when the U.S. intercepted a message from Germany to Mexico offering to help Mexico push its borders northward if Mexico united with Germany in war against the United States. The Mexican American civil rights movement gained strength after this turbulent period and artifacts related to this movement and to the Chicano movement in the 1970s are also on view.
Bullock Museum Director Dr. Victoria Ramirez said the museum, whose mission is to tell “the Story of Texas,” was proud to partner with Refusing to Forget to bring this important history to its visitors. Jennifer Cobb, Associate Curator of Exhibitions at the museum said, “The scholars and professors approached the Bullock with this idea of this exhibit, to learn about this piece of history. I never knew about it until I started working on this exhibit, and it was astounding that this is not public knowledge. This is largely faded from public memory after the period ended, aside from those who were directly affected by it.”
In addition to this exhibition, Refusing to Forget has been working on the creation of a traveling exhibit and an online exhibit, designing curricular materials for teachers, organizing public lectures, increasing the number of Tejano and Mexican American encyclopedia entries for the Handbook of Texas Online, and applying for Texas Historical Markers to mark the presence of Tejanos and Mexican Americans on the memorial landscape. They hope that these projects will generate ongoing public dialogue about this period of anti-Mexican violence and provide Texans and others with places where they can learn about and reflect on the lasting consequences of this period.
For more information about the exhibition, visit the Bullock Museum’s website.
The photograph attributions for this article's cover image are as follows: "International Bridge, Looking Toward Mexico," courtesy Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin; exhibition flyer, courtesy of the Bullock Museum; "'Juan Crow' Laws," courtesy Russell Lee Photography Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin; and "Dead Mexican Bandits," courtesy of the Bullock Museum.