What does It take to Remember the Alamo?
By Ngoc Tram Nguyen • September 26, 2022
An interview with Kate Rogers, the Executive Director of Alamo Trust, Inc (ATI), the private 501(c)3 non-profit organisation in Texas that manages day-to-day operations and staff at the Alamo. Interview conducted by Ngoc Tram Nguyen, IHJR- EuroClio Research intern, Summer 2022; Harvard College Class of 2022
When Kate Rogers took on the role of the Executive Director of the Alamo Trust, she was equipped with her deep-rooted passion for education and social studies. As a former H-E-B executive, an American privately held supermarket chain based in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 340 stores throughout the U.S. state of Texas, as well as in northeast Mexico, Kate had all the public affairs skills it took to manage a large organisation with many stakeholders. Everyone was surprised when Kate accepted the job, as the Alamo – a UNESCO world heritage site – is one of the most contested sites in the United States. To her own surprise, Kate found that the title of the Alamo Trust came with an actual lack of trust from communities around San Antonio. Regardless, Kate took charge of the Alamo Plan – the $450 million plan to upgrade the former mission – formed working groups, and committed to preserving the legacy of the Alamo for generations to come. We checked in with Kate to hear about her experience working with different stakeholders, incorporating feedback from varied perspectives, and instilling the value of education in the process of maintaining the Alamo’s legacy – a legacy she believes is not only pertinent to Texans but all Americans and citizens of the world.
To begin, I would love to learn more about the changes the Alamo Trust is hoping to make with the Alamo Plan and what the museum would look like once the Plan is completed.
I’ve been at the Alamo for a little over a year. But for as long as I have been alive, the community of San Antonio has been talking about creating a more robust experience for visitors at the Alamo – It’s never been able to be accomplished. When I think about conflict and debate, to me, I think about the Alamo. The Alamo has been a site of conflict since the day it was created, and it continues to this day.
What do you think these controversies are rooted in?
I think about it in the context of freedom – what freedom means to different people and how things have changed over time. For the Alamo Trust, I think what we’re trying to do is tell the full story of the site. There are about 1.6 million people who come to the Alamo from all over the world every year, and the reason that they come, not all, but primarily, is because of the battle of 1836. That is what most people know about: the Texas Revolution and three people from that era, James Bowie, William B. Travis, and of course, Davy Crockett, who was a larger-than-life historical figure.
When these visitors come, we have an opportunity to teach them that there was a lot that happened before the battle, and there was a lot that happened after the battle. The Long Barracks, which is one of the oldest structures in Texas, was originally built in its current location in 1724. Then the construction of the church began and was not completed until the 1740s. I always think about the church itself as having a lot of stories to tell – of how the site has been called to do and be many things over the years. It was first inhabited by Indigenous peoples thousands of years ago; These were Indigenous people who were a part of Mexico and were largely nomadic and lived in bands and clans. Their descendants live in San Antonio still to this day and believe quite firmly that some of their ancestors are either buried in the Church or on the grounds surrounding.
That’s one layer. Then, you’ve got the arrival of the Spanish and the history of colonisation and all the impact that European presence had on Texas. It was the Spanish who brought the horse, for example, to Texas. And the horse changed the Indigenous landscape dramatically.
The Alamo was originally built as a Spanish mission and there are different viewpoints about that – whether the people who were inside wanted to be there, or whether they were forced to be there. It was the Indigenous peoples who built the church to begin with while also being converted to Catholicism. So, as you can tell, it is a very complicated story.
Absolutely. With its long history comes more generations of people with direct ties to the location who are personally invested.
Right. When you think about all the things that are debated in the United States today, this little five-acre site is a microcosm of sort of all of it. Moreover, you’ve got the fact that it was the 1830s in the United States of America. Mexico was having a very difficult time populating Texas as it is not a hospitable place; It was very arid and hot and there was conflict with the local tribes. Overall, a lot of people who lived in Mexico didn’t want to move to the Northern territory, but the Mexican authorities wanted it populated because they were worried that the French were going to try to take the territory. Thus, they opened it up and invited people from the United States to come. Most of those people coming from the United States came from places in the south, and some of them brought enslaved people with them. But they weren’t the first enslaved people in Texas. The first enslaved peoples in Texas were actually brought here in the late 1500s by the Spanish. When you think about the original thirteen colonies, Texas wasn’t part of that. Our history of slavery and indentured servitude is quite different because we were part of new Spain and then part of Mexico, eventually our own Republic and then part of the United States. And so it is, as I said, complicated.
Wow. It’s really refreshing to hear from you. I lived in Texas for a year, but a lot of the conversations I’ve had have been one-sided or pointed. A lot of people don’t try to recognise or reconcile everything – all the histories of the Alamo and its complications. I appreciate you bringing everything to the table and shedding light on every perspective.
Of course. I think it’s also important to remember what I coined as ‘presentism’. We often apply what we know today to characters that lived centuries ago. But it is important to apply context to learn more about what happened and why they made the decisions that they did. The figures that are often so controversial are not just one-dimensional; They can be heroic and have done great deeds and shown great courage in times of trouble but also by today’s standards, have done horrible, oppressive things.
I was in a meeting this week. We were planning the galleries of the museum. What I asked the group is: What kind of experience do you want the visitors to have? What questions do you want them to wrestle with? I don’t think there’s one way to explain history. History is by its very nature interpretative. We all bring a different lens to history, depending on how we were raised, where we were raised, the information that we gathered, the stories that were passed down to us. I do think that the Alamo story itself is particularly messy and mysterious because everyone died. You only have two full accounts of people who were here during the battle itself: Joe and Susannah. Joe was an enslaved person owned by William B. Travis. Once William B. was shot in the very first moments of the battle, Joe took shelter. Similarly, Susannah Dickinson was inside the Church with her daughter. The women and children were taking shelter, and she survived, but she didn’t see the battle. When you get into these things that are debated: Where did Davy Crockett die, and how did he die? Did William Barret Travis draw a line in the sand? There’s so much mystery about it because people didn’t see it with their own eyes. Then, even if they did, you must realise that again, they’re going to put their lens and interpretation on what happened.
Absolutely. History is what is in the name – made up of stories and perspectives.
Right. For the museum it is about putting forward the information and letting the visitors decide. “You are the historian. Here’s the evidence on both sides. What do you think? What do you make of it?” What we want to teach people is how to think historically, how to have empathy for historical figures – for people who lived way before we did – and to understand them and the decisions that they made.
Of course. As a part of this team, have you formed a working group to put all this information together? Who exactly is a part of the team that decides what information is presented?
We do have a working group. It’s a combination of people. The museum itself is designed to be a chronological experience. It starts at the beginning with the indigenous inhabitants and works all the way up to modern day. There’s a series of galleries that talk about all the different layers of history as you make your way through. We have a team of about 18 historians thus far. We also pull in other experts as needed from different parts of Texas, other parts of the country, and even Mexico. Texas’ history, as you know, is a big tale. The historians are working on a narrative, which started as an outline and now is starting to get flushed out and will end up being a document that’s somewhere between 500 and 700 pages. This narrative will inform all the exhibits that are placed inside the museum and everything across the grounds on the site itself. Locally, we have a museum planning committee that’s composed of some elected officials, other museum leaders from the community, and representatives of major stakeholders – such as people who represent the Indigenous descendants and the woman who runs the San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum. It’s a very diverse group.
Recently, we were reviewing one of our galleries, which is about Mexican rule and the Texas Revolution. This is a big topic, which ranges from about 1800 to 1835. In the historical context, that’s the Age of Enlightenment. Revolution is happening, not just in America, but across the globe. We as a museum have to give visitors context of what was happening in Mexico during that period of time. What happened with the Constitution of 1824? Who were the people who came to settle in Texas? What were they told? What were they promised? Why did they decide to rise up? Certainly, slavery was a part of that, but it was not the only part of it. There was more to it.
There’s a quote by Professor Latimore that states ‘Slavery cannot be dismissed, but [it is not] the central reason for the Texas Revolution.’ In some accounts, there was conflict with protestant culture of the southern states in the U.S. compared to the catholic culture of Mexico. There does seem to be a multitude of reasons.
And the important thing to remember too is there were roughly 189 defenders at the Alamo who were up against roughly 2000 Mexican soldiers again, depending on whose account you’re reading. The defenders, however, weren’t all from this country; Some of the defenders came directly from overseas, Germany and Ireland.
They weren’t mostly from Tennessee and other southern states?
They were primarily from southern states within what was then the United States, but there were many that came from overseas. It was a very diverse group of people. During our discussion with the museum planning committee, however, we asked ourselves: Do we call them Anglo settlers? Does that seem right because ‘Anglo’ feels very British. One of the women who’s on our museum planning committee and a descendant of a defender is very proud of that heritage, as any Texan would be. If you’re a descendant of a defender of the Alamo, that’s a heritage you’ve been proud of your whole life. What I strive to do is not denigrate or diminish that pride to tell the story from someone else’s point of view.
As a San Antonian native yourself, what were your sentiments on the Alamo before you came into the role? Your professional background is also fascinating. You previously worked as the Vice President of the Community Outreach and Engagement at the Charles Butt Foundation. Did that experience at all inform or influence your current position now? How do you think those skills or experiences have transferred over time?
Right! My background is not in museum science or museum studies; It is actually public affairs. My personal passion, however, is education. I love to learn, and I think the greatest gift you can give to anyone is a love of learning. My experience at H.E.B. mostly involves dealing with the community and listening to different perspectives and trying to move things forward while bringing different stakeholder groups together. That’s my background, and I would like to think that I have good relationships in the San Antonio community.
But you know… this job has tested some of those relationships, which saddens me sometimes. When I got here, I inherited, unfortunately, a lack of trust. It’s ironic that our name is the ‘Alamo Trust’, and yet a lot of people in the community don’t trust us. Many times, they doubt that we’re telling the full story or including diverse perspectives.
Was that something that surprised you when you came into this position?
Yes, of course. Before coming on, I’d read about a lot of the controversies in the paper. If you live here, it is hard to miss. I guess I didn’t realise how emotionally attached people are to the Alamo on both sides of the spectrum – and for very different reasons. I didn’t understand the depth of that emotion.
I just want to note that just from my conversation with you so far, it sounds like you are doing such an incredible job. The way you are speaking to me about your passion for education and history and the way you have listened to people and tried to incorporate as many perspectives as possible is valuable. I also personally appreciate learning a lot from you. Even from my research, it was easy to pick sides when I read so many polarised opinions, and I had to also tell myself vigorously to be more nuanced or more understanding. But of course, everyone has their own justification for their strong opinions. During my research, I noticed that there was a lot of contention regarding the Cenotaph. How did you personally and professionally approach the decision-making process? I know the final decision is that the Cenotaph will stay on the grounds of the Alamo. But it does need restoration, so will it be restored there, or will there be no restoration at all?
Yes, the Cenotaph was a lightning rod for drawing out emotion. The Cenotaph for the Alamo is a monument, you know… it’s a memorial dedicated to people who fought and died there. Moving the Cenotaph off the battlefield from the place where blood was spilled was obviously a controversial idea. But when there are so many opinions, you cannot get attached to your own ideas about things. Early on when that resistance started to make itself known, people probably should have listened – ‘Well, that’s probably not going to fly with the community.’ It didn’t fly with the Texas Historical Commission. The hard part is making sure that you are listening and getting feedback. We’re trying to be more transparent and not surprise people. I think there was an element of surprise to the plan that was presented prior where people didn’t know. I don’t want them to think that we are trying to do anything nefarious. But in the end, the Cenotaph is not moving. Period.
I think that there was a thought that you couldn’t do the museum’s restoration plan without moving the Cenotaph. But now, I think we have a very strong plan in place with good support from the local community and the Cenotaph is staying exactly where it is.
As for the restoration plan. The idea is that when visitors come here, they think that the Alamo is just the church. They don’t understand that it was an entire fort – a community where people lived. A lot of the time, I don’t think that they get a sense of the scale of the real footprint. The thought is that, when possible, we are bringing the structures back to life physically, so people can see them. In addition, in today’s world, through augmented reality, you can show what the site looked like without having to rebuild everything exactly as it was. The idea was that the Cenotaph wasn’t here in 1836 so it had to be moved and it is also in need of repair. But we are building an app that is launching later this year, and with your phone, you’ll be able to look at the different structures and see how the site has evolved over time. What did it look like in the 1700s? What did it look like in the 1830s? And then what did it look like after the battle, when it was left in ruins before the army moved in? That was the original idea behind the Cenotaph, but I want to be very clear. We are not moving the Cenotaph.
Yes, understood. To clarify, was the Cenotaph being moved in the first place to be restored and then put back in its original location, or was it going to be moved off the site altogether?
They were going to move it off the battlefield. It was going to be placed not that far away from its original location. It does need to be repaired, so they were going to put it in front of the Menger Hotel, which would have sat outside of the gates of the mission. That was the controversy.
Ultimately, we have to do an investigation. We hired a firm to do that investigation, and they will need to take the top off, so we can get a drone inside of it to study the damage. The problem is that the pins in the structure are aluminium, so they have oxidised over time. We do not know the extent of the deterioration, but it has created a level of instability, and some of the stones are starting to be at risk of falling off. We have committed to the people, however, that we are going to do the restoration on the site. Even if we must dismantle it and put it back together in order to do the repairs, we will not take the stones anywhere. They will remain here.
Great! Thank you for the clarification. The Alamo is also the site of a burial ground, which is something that the Tāp Pīlam people, the local Indigenous population in San Antonio, have been advocating for. You mentioned that there are some local Indigenous folks in your working group. Could you explain the Alamo Trust’s relationship with the local Tāp Pīlam people, and further, to what extent does federal recognition impact their ability to be involved in these decision-making aspects?
Well, they were suing us. Ramón Vásquez, probably someone you have already read about, is on our committee. How is our relationship? I would say that we are working on it. Ramón is a lovely human, and he’s also incredibly knowledgeable about Indigenous history in this area. I think there’s hurt there that the Tāp Pīlam people experienced regarding the Alamo for many, many years. They had been doing their ceremony inside the church for many years. I can’t speak to all the things that led up to a decision to stop that, but that was the impetus for the lawsuit. There were other issues, but that was the impetus. There was also a committee created at the Alamo to deal with human remains, there was an archaeological dig done at the Alamo inside the church, and the first one ever in the Long Barracks in 2019. There were remains found inside the church. A committee was formed to start thinking about what a repatriation might look like, and the Tāp Pīlam people were excluded. That was another factor of the lawsuit, but the primary factor was the ceremony itself. It was not easy, Tram. It was not. But we finally got the state to agree to mediation. We went to mediation and settled the suits, so they’re not suing us anymore. That opened a door for the relationship to be repaired in my view. The hard part was that we could not have them on our committee if they were suing us, and now we have Ramón on the committee. We spend a lot of time with him because he has great knowledge and artifacts. We’d like to include some oral histories from descendants inside the new museum and so forth. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but I think it’s getting better.
There was a lot that happened, so I really appreciate getting a clearer sense of the timeline from you. We have touched on the theme of getting perspectives from others a lot, and it seems like generational knowledge is also an important aspect of the Alamo legacy. This kind of knowledge is of course passed through systemic education. How do you think the Alamo as a historical space can be transformed through education and the way we teach history in school?
Education is so crucial, and I believe that training teachers is important. The more that we empower teachers, the more we can reach students. We get about 140,000 school children on the site per year, and we’re trying to do a better job of what we can do when they’re here. We want to come up with activities to do before they come and follow-up activities for when they get back to the classrooms. We want to make our tours more robust, more consistent – adding different perspectives to the story because when students come, we want them to see their own stories at the Alamo. Those are our goals. This past year, we had our first group that wanted a tour solely focused on the mission era, so that is what we put together. This local school was also visiting the other missions in San Antonio, so we developed content tailored to that.
What does an effective education training program for teachers and students at the Alamo look like?
My vision is to have galleries and exhibits that start with the Indigenous inhabitants and include the Mission era, Mexican rule and Texas Revolution, the battle itself, and the frontier post – which was developed because the U.S. army used the Alamo as an outpost for the purposes of supporting westward expansion. The army came after Texas became a part of the United States in 1845, and they’re really the ones that saved the structure and were the first to put a roof on it. There are still etchings in the walls of the church from different members of the army. We want to tell that story. Then, we’ll talk about the turn of the century when two women stepped in to save it, Adina Emilia De Zavala and Clara Driscoll, and finally we’ll talk about the impact of the Alamo on popular culture. Why has Hollywood been telling this story for so many years? Why does it capture the imagination of a British rock star who collected artifacts? I spoke to a gentleman recently who was a very prominent movie director and producer in the 1980s. He lives in Los Angeles, and he just happens to have a stellar Alamo collection. He has in his collection what most people think of as the last letter that Davy Crockett wrote before he left for Texas.
Wow. That’s true devotion to history.
Exactly. It’s funny! Why did this man from Los Angeles become interested in this story?
Thus, my vision is that with each of those galleries, we have an opportunity to provide curriculum, lessons, and activities for teachers to do in the classroom. We want to host workshops that address all of those different aspects of history. On site, we offer educators two things: Firstly, it is access to real scholars and experts who can help them deepen their own content knowledge, and secondly, it is the power to be in the place where history happened, where these people once stood. That is an experience that you can then bring back to your classroom. That’s the unique opportunity that places like the Alamo have.
I think that history and social studies are often overlooked in terms of K-12 education today because they’re not tested subjects in the early grades. However, I would argue that social studies classes are the place where children learn how to participate and be civically engaged. People can say what they want about Texas, but one of the good things is Texas is moving in a direction to make sure that social studies is incorporated in every grade. If we do not understand where we came from or how we got here, I don’t know how we’re going to lead ourselves into the future.
Absolutely. Speaking of the Alamo’s popularity in the modern world, I have a friend from the U.K., and he was visiting me recently, and I was telling him about the research I am doing about the Alamo, and he started singing the David Crockett song. I thought it was so funny because I just figured he had no idea what the Alamo was, but instead, he immediately knew of what I deemed as a specific aspect about American history and culture; Even I didn’t know the song!
And for you. It seems like in coming up with these plans for the future of the Alamo and how its legacy is continued, you are having to mediate between a lot of opinions and histories that people hold personal ties to. How do you grapple with all of that? It’s a lot of pressure as the head person of the Alamo Trust. How are you doing?
You know, I’m trying to do the right thing. Sometimes, people don’t trust that my intentions are true or sincere, and that can feel bad. I try not to take it personally. Even if it hurts me one day, I try to come back the next day and remember that everybody is bringing their own perspectives and personality to the table, including myself. I also have a wonderful team. We had a rough meeting recently, and my communications director brought me a beautiful bouquet of flowers. We have hard days, but we hold each other up. We laugh a lot. A lot of the stuff that we talk about is so deeply serious, but we must keep a sense of humour about it
Thank you, Kate. That was beautiful. Do you have any last reflections?
You know this job is a lot, but it is a tremendous honour. I got called by a recruiter about this job, and at first, a lot of people in the community told me that they could not believe that I took the job because there is so much controversy. But my husband, who is a very passionate Texas-born Texan, Texas Aggie, and a history buff said to me, ‘I can’t believe you’re even thinking about this. It’s the Alamo. You have to do it.’ For me, it is an honour, and sometimes it’s hard, but on hard days, I remind myself of that.
This is a once in a lifetime sort of opportunity. I thought to myself, ‘If we can get this done and get it done right, what a beautiful thing we will have done for future generations.’