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The Power of Evidence: Briscoe Center holdings

History comes to life at the Briscoe Center’s holdings in Austin, Bonham, Uvalde and Winedale

There’s no mistaking Rayburn’s powerful presence, here flanked by Lloyd Bentsen and John Connally, each on his way to national prominence. (Courtesy Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, UT Austin)

By Charles Lohrmann

In a meeting at an ornate, highly patinated, conference table in the oldest building on the University of Texas at Austin campus, it’s natural that the topic is history. Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History, discusses the challenges of overseeing a collection with four very different facilities in multiple locations around the state. I’m particularly curious that Carleton emphasizes the word “evidence” as he characterizes the Center’s holdings. To me, it seems slightly dramatic to use the word in this context. After all, isn’t evidence what attorneys use to prove, or substantiate, a legal case?

As I consider it, though, it becomes apparent that the word “evidence” imparts a sharper, more immediate edge to the mission of evaluating the thousands of objects and documents in the still-growing collection of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s not a stretch to say that considering historical artifacts as evidence, even as evidence in a case, is essential to making history more relevant to students and bringing history to life for the everyday amateur.

Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary, a record from his years of captivity in Mexico City during the 1830s. (Diary Courtesy Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, UT Austin)On this particular autumn morning, Carleton and I, along with the Center’s associate director for communications, Erin Purdy, are literally surrounded by historic evidence.

We’re seated at the oak conference table at which John D. Rockefeller and his colleagues gathered to formulate the decisions that directed Standard Oil, later to become Exxon (the Exxon-Mobil historical collection resides in the Briscoe Center’s holdings). Across the spacious room sit the imposing roll-top desk used by Texas Governor James Stephen Hogg and the capacious chair that accommodated the portly man (Hogg’s papers reside in the Briscoe Center’s collection, too). And we’re inside the Nowotny Building (which houses the Center’s administrative offices), on the east side of the UT campus near Interstate 35 and Martin Luther King Boulevard, which once served as the headquarters for George Armstrong Custer when he was stationed in Texas after the Civil War. The evidence definitely demands center stage.

So, I wonder, when the researchers are surrounded by historic evidence such as this, is there a tendency to get lost in the past and lose perspective on the present? Before I can ask the question, Carleton gestures to a line of more than two dozen books (all published within recent memory) standing on a nearby table, and explains that the Briscoe Center played a role in development of each one. And a documentary titled When I Rise, which explores the career of African American mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad (produced by the Center with Carleton as executive producer), is earning acclaim at film festivals around the country.

The Briscoe Center’s holdings include the Sam Rayburn Library in the North Texas town of Bonham; the John Nance Garner home in Dolph Briscoe’s hometown of Uvalde; and the historic preservation project of Winedale, initiated by Houston-based philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg (daughter of Governor Hogg), who purchased the Central Texas property and donated it to the University in the 1960s (following significant expansion).  The Center’s main archive resides in the Sid Richardson Building adjacent to the LBJ Library at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Center itself crystallized its current identity when former governor Dolph Briscoe, long a patron and informal advisor, endowed the Center with $15 million. Once the endowment was in place, the University of Texas Regents voted to name the Center for Briscoe. Even though the Center has gained recognition among scholars and historians for many years, the addition of the name “Briscoe” gave it a more “Texas” personality.

Of course, maintaining a national perspective is something powerful Texans have done well for decades.


From the January 2011 issue.

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