Tourists stepping onto Alamo Plaza for the first time often arrive with pop culture-influenced versions of Alamo defenders in their head—the Fess Parker caricature of Davy Crockett from the 1950s TV show or the Laurence Harvey version of Col. William B. Travis in the 1960 movie, The Alamo. It’s no surprise then, that they’re often a little disappointed by the reality of the city and state’s most popular tourist destination.
Only about 1 percent of the Alamo collection is on display for public view and much of it is housed in the annex, a place that has been retrofitted over the years but was never designed to be an exhibit space. Beyond the actual grounds, the flashing lights and sounds from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! across the street can be disorienting when trying to soak in the sacredness that many-a-Texan associate with the historic site.
Efforts to change that experience have stopped and started many times over the years but are back in motion again this summer as crews break ground on a 10,000-square-foot Alamo Exhibit Hall & Collections Building. The facility is the first piece of a larger plan that local and state officials and residents have been working toward (and in many cases fighting over) and may be the first sign that change finally is coming.
“There was a perception publicly that the work had stopped, but behind the scenes, work never stopped,” says Kate Rogers, who became executive director of the Alamo Trust earlier this year. “There has always been work and conversation going on.”
While fraught with debate, the physical redevelopment (which also will address deterioration in the church and long barracks and include the addition of a large visitor center and museum) may end up being the easier part of reimagining the Alamo, despite its estimated $450 million price tag.
Running parallel to redevelopment efforts is a spirited discussion over how best to educate visitors about the battle and greater Texas Revolution.
When this most recent round of redevelopment plans began under then-mayor Julián Castro, there seemed to be at least some agreement between city and state stakeholders that a full telling of the site’s history needed to acknowledge the role of Native Americans and of slavery in the Texas Revolution. Agreement on that began to deteriorate in recent years just as battles were brewing nationwide about the way we remember and talk about our nation’s history—should statues of Confederate leaders be removed from public spaces or does that equate to a “cancel culture?” How can curriculum better acknowledge the role of slavery in ongoing racial inequality or are current lessons sufficient?
In Texas, the debate came to a head this spring when a bill was filed in the Texas Legislature aiming to prohibit Alamo development plans from highlighting anything that wasn’t mentioned in the Texas Declaration of Independence as a reason for the revolution. The declaration does not mention slavery.
Carey Latimore, Ph.D. and associate professor of history and African American Studies at Trinity University, says he understands the discomfort that can come with acknowledging imperfections of the Alamo heroes, some of whom were slave owners. But, he adds, leaving out that and other elements, simply “whitewashes the important experience” of entire groups, many of whom visit the Alamo.
“Slavery sometimes doesn’t fit into our narrative. We want to always say we’re on a pathway to more freedom and the fact that slavery existed for so long throws a monkey wrench into that,” he says. “Slavery, in my mind, is one of the realities that can’t be dismissed in leading to the Texas Revolution. It’s this idea of acknowledging that revolutions often don’t happen for only one reason and you can’t dismiss slavery as one of the reasons.”
Rogers says education and the ways in which Alamo staff talk about its history are at the center of all redevelopment plans. When it comes to what details are included, Rogers says they follow state public education standards in providing curriculum for teachers to use in fourth and seventh grades, when Texas history is taught.
Latimore says as Texas and America become increasingly diverse, including Black, Latino and Native American history narratives at the Alamo and elsewhere will only become more important. “I hope we can make this work because it would mean we’ve asked the difficult questions and we have found a way to tell the story truthfully and accurately,” he says. “If we make this work, I think it’s a model for the nation and a tremendous victory for our city and state.”
As that conversation continued at the state level heading into summer, Rogers says the Alamo Trust was focused on moving ahead with the site’s physical upgrades. Bexar County in May approved a $25 million investment for the Alamo Museum and Visitor Center set to open in 2025 (The city had already committed over $35 million and the state over $100 million). Moving ahead likely will continue to include debate, she says, but that doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish the initial goal of an improved Alamo Plaza that better reflects what occurred at the site in 1836.
“Obviously, with a site as treasured as the Alamo, there are a lot of stakeholders,” Rogers says. “We have to do a good job of communicating, of listening, of sharing our plans and taking feedback so that in the end what we build is something everyone can be proud of locally and across the state.”
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