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Briscoe Center’s red-letter history exhibit puts spotlight on Texas

‘25 Years/25 Treasures’ reveals more than 60 items crucial to the region’s story.

A sturdy witness to history, the marble, classically inspired rostrum stood in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1857 to 1950.

From this podium in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt demanded a declaration of war against the Japanese. When the U.S. Capitol was remodeled in 1950, it was given to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who served his North Texas district in Congress from 1912 until 1961.

Reflecting on the rostrum, the observer is reminded that Rayburn harked back to a perhaps lost tradition of incremental compromise and cooperation in Congress.

He famously said: “Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”

The rostrum, usually housed at the Sam Rayburn Museum in his hometown of Bonham, is one of the most startling items on display in “25 Years/25 Treasures,” an exhibit toasting the first quarter century of the Briscoe Center for American History. The show continues at the LBJ Presidential Library — the Briscoe’s home across the plaza at the University of Texas is under renovation — through Jan. 16.

The title is a bit misleading. While curators have indeed chosen 25 treasures from the Briscoe’s collection, the exhibit unwraps more than 40 other supporting items — letters, books, maps, new media and more. Also, the university began collecting these objects soon after its first classes convened in 1883.

This show’s shorthand title salutes, instead, the act of consolidating several of UT’s historical collections into the Center for American History in 1991. It was named for late Gov. Dolph Briscoe in 2008.

The Sam Rayburn Museum was, by the way, added to the old Barker Texas History Center as a constituent branch of the new Briscoe in 1991. The Winedale Historical Center in Winedale and the Briscoe-Garner Museum in Uvalde joined this far-flung array later.

The early Texas connection

A good chunk of the current exhibition deals with Texas history, going back to Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s 1555 published account of his misadventures in the region. It was the first book about Texas. Only 15 copies of this edition are known to exist.

Nearby is “Carte du Mexique et de la Floride,” published in 1703. It was the first printed map to show the correct course of the Mississippi River to its mouth. French cartographer Guillaume Delisle drew on reports from survivors of the La Salle expedition in Texas, as well as accounts of missionaries.

For lovers of genealogy, one can examine the list of Canary Islander families who arrived in San Antonio de Béxar in 1731, “something of a Mayflower list for Spanish Texas,” in the words of the exhibit’s curators. The Béxar Archives, dated from 1717 to 1836, are a historian’s gold mine. Included from the archives is a 1717 letter from Juan Oliván de Rebolledo that calls for the founding of what would become San Antonio de Béxar the next year.

Displayed letters from three American presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — deal with the complicated geopolitics of North America, including interactions with the British, Spanish and Native Americans.

Several documents are related to Stephen F. Austin, who established the first Anglo-American colonies in Texas — and because many of the pioneers brought along slaves, also the first African-American ones. In another “Mayflower moment,” one can peek at his list of the original 1824 settlers, who came to be known as the “Old Three Hundred,” a phrase that tends to come up whenever multigenerational Texans talk about their families.

No Texas history would be complete with references to the Alamo. Showcased here is José Enrique de la Peña’s 1836 description of Davy Crockett, including his claims that Crockett did not die during the battle. An 1849 daguerreotype, the earliest known photograph of the Alamo Chapel of the San Antonio de Valero Mission, shows the spot still bearing the scars of the Texas Revolution.

Texas President Sam Houston is represented by a gift teapot from the Empress of China, as well as by his 1836 inaugural address. Amazingly, Texas Ranger William “Big Foot” Wallace’s buckskin jacket survives in fairly good condition from the 1850s, although a family member replaced the sleeves at a later date.

An unfinished painting from the 1850s by Friedrich Richard Petri depicts Lipan Apaches seeking refuge at Fort Martin Scott, reminding us that especially when facing a common enemy like the Comanches, Central Texas Indians often sided with settlers.

Several artifacts detail the story of slavery in the South, including the 1861 Texas Ordinance of Secession, which stressed the need to defend slavery into perpetuity. Along with Civil War reports comes a “Lone Star” quilt, which is in sterling condition despite a tumultuous history.

“This Texas-made quilt is a survivor, having traveled thousands of miles and endured a shipwreck,” reads the accompanying text. “It was made by Amanda Pairalee Hammonds in Rusk County, circa 1858. Following the Civil War, her family joined the McMullan Colony, a group of Texans determined to move to Brazil rather than live under a Reconstruction government. En route, their ship was hit by a fierce tropical storm and wrecked on rocks near Cuba. Submerged for several days, the quilt was pulled out of the water, scrubbed with sand, and dried in the sun. Amanda and her family ultimately made it to Brazil several months later, but elected to return to Texas almost immediately.”

Modern history

Traditionally, regional historians have focused on pre-industrial, pre-urban Texas. One detects in this show the changing tide in Samuel Dodd’s memorandum to John D. Rockefeller in 1881, speculating about how Standard Oil could form “trusts,” a sign of the rise of American corporate capitalism. This and other key artifacts come from the Briscoe’s ExxonMobil Historical Collection.

In the early 20th century, Austin was a hotbed of the women’s suffrage movement, and Jane McCallum, wife of Austin’s school superintendent, was a particularly charismatic leader. Thank goodness the couple’s family papers are housed at the Briscoe Center. On view at the LBJ Library are a suffrage banner, Jane McCallum’s diary and a photograph of Gov. William P. Hobby signing the 1919 bill that amended the Texas Constitution to allow women to vote.

Eminent Texas father-and-son folklorists John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax are celebrated here with materials related to legendary blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who met the elder Lomax while serving a stint in the Angola prison in Louisiana. They later toured the country, one singing blues and the other lecturing about it.

There is more here on prominent Texas politicians, World War II and the civil rights movement, but looking at all the paper and ink in the exhibit, it is natural to wonder how today’s “born digital” history will be preserved.

Well, the final exhibit displays a hard drive containing “Out of the Blue: 50 Years after the UT Tower Shooting,” part of the oral history series on the Texas Standard radio program, preserved in the UT KUT/Longhorn Radio Network Records.

Which brings the viewer up to 2016.

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