State criticized for claiming ownership of Alamo artifacts

DALLAS (AP) – Leading academics, archivists and others are criticizing efforts by Texas officials to claim ownership of part of a historical collection at the Alamo that’s considered one of the state’s most important treasures.

In a letter sent Friday to General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush, the group argues that the private library maintained by the nonprofit Daughters of the Republic of Texas is one of the finest research facilities in the state. The letter notes the library houses about 38,000 items, from books, maps and flags to paintings, manuscripts and other artifacts.

The letter contends that the General Land Office’s claim of ownership “would set an untenable precedent that would potentially impact the ownership of every Texas museum and library collection acquired through donations.” Among those who signed letter was former Texas state archivist David B. Gracy II, who said the state agency doesn’t have the expertise to manage the archives.

“There’s nothing in the functioning of the (Daughters of the Republic) library that suggests that it needs to be taken over by anybody,” Gracy said.

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A spokeswoman for the state agency declined comment, citing a pending lawsuit filed by the Daughters over the issue.

But in court filings responding to the lawsuit, the General Land Office says it doesn’t want control of the entire collection. Instead, it argues that some of the items belong to the state because taxpayer dollars were used to purchase them. The agency is pushing for a better accounting of the collection to determine which items don’t belong to the Daughters, also known as DRT.

“Not only did DRT run the library from the account containing state funds and purchase items using state funds, but throughout its century as trustee, DRT failed to distinguish and separate its own property from state-owned artifacts in its possession,” the agency’s filing states.

The Daughters ran the Alamo complex for 110 years before the General Land Office took ownership of the site in 2011, at the behest of lawmakers who had grown concerned about the landmark’s care. Worries arose following accusations of mismanagement and financial incompetence levied at the nonprofit.

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But the Daughters continued to manage the site – until the state ended its contract with the heritage group in March. The Daughters sued days later, alleging the General Land Office “unilaterally declared” that the state owned the library collection.

The lawsuit argues that the items in question were donated and that donors wanted the items to be maintained under the Daughters’ stewardship, not the state’s.

A trial to hear the claims is scheduled for February, though a temporary injunction signed this week allows the Daughters to maintain access to the collection until the issue is resolved.

The library and its holdings are open to the public, but they’re largely used by researchers for scholarly work and other purposes. While many items in the collection offer a view into the 1836 battle, many more items reflect broader Texas history. For instance, there’s a hand-drawn map made by Stephen F. Austin of the Austin Colony.

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“I just think it’s sad that this is happening. I really hope that the ownership can remain with the DRT because they’ve built up that collection and maintained it over the years,” said Sam Ratcliffe, head of special collections at the Hamon Arts Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Ratcliffe also signed Friday’s letter.

The dispute comes at a time of significant changes for the Alamo.

In July, the mission-turned-fortress in downtown San Antonio was named a World Heritage Site by a UNESCO committee. And earlier this month, Texas officials unveiled a nearly $32 million state effort to renovate the Alamo and its grounds.

Lamont Jefferson, an attorney representing the Daughters, said the organization’s management of the library is widely respected and that efforts by the state to claim ownership are “shameful.”

“The suggestion that the daughters were supposed to prove that no state funds were used for any purpose associated with the library, and that they were supposed to account for these funds on an ongoing basis, is brand new,” he said.