Invisible Mansfield

When black and white histories collided in their small town, Phyllis Allen and fellow church members made sure Mansfield didn't white-wash the truth.

After nearly three hours of tense discussion, Nifong more or less negotiated a truce. She pledged to publicize the oral history in Mansfield, whatever its contents. Wong promised to keep Bethlehem Baptist better informed about the project.

The conciliatory words, however, failed to hide the distrust that lingered in the stuffy room. Neither the church nor the society would surrender its own perceptions of the truth.

But for just a moment, a prominent town scion had had her sunny view of history challenged, a historian found his objectivity tested, and the city's oldest black church had lifted the veil and enabled people to catch a glimpse of the real historical black Mansfield.

"When this project was originally proposed, what did you anticipate you would get?" Allen asked Nifong near the end of the meeting.

Nifong let out a sigh. "I'm not sure what I expected," she said. "But it wasn't this."

Mansfield's oral history project was launched two years ago, when the city of 22,000 received a grant to record the recollections of its black population. The city paid Stan Solamillo $6,000 to compile the history, which was to be finished within nine months. The grant covered only half of that fee, so both the historical society and Bethlehem Baptist forked over $1,500 to make up the difference.

The problems cropped up as the project dragged on longer than nine months. Parts of the oral history transcript, which gathered the thoughts of seven elderly black residents, filtered out to the historical society members early this year, but not to the church.

Society members were shocked by what they read: This certainly wasn't the quaint collection of remembrances they'd expected. Within the pages of the transcript, black residents challenged the happy memories of Mansfield that many white people had cherished, revealing that their city had been rife with petty acts of racism throughout the decades.

Among the black residents' recollections was the accusation that Ernie Blessing, the white former owner of the local funeral home, wouldn't bother to embalm the bodies of black people. And instead of using a hearse, he'd carry their coffins in a shabby truck and bury them in shallow graves.

Another person recalled that blacks weren't allowed to walk on Main Street unless they were carrying a bag--indicating they'd made a purchase somewhere. Nor were they allowed to try on clothes before they bought them.

Pam Armstrong, a historic preservationist who is editing Solamillo's oral history transcript, says she received a frantic phone call earlier this year from Nifong, who couldn't believe what black residents had said about the Blessings.

"'Why, he gave ice cream to the colored kids,'" Armstrong recalls Nifong saying. "I told her that may be her recollection, but it wasn't as important to them as the way their dead were being buried and the way they were generally treated."

Today, Nifong says she had no knowledge of how blacks were treated at the city's only funeral home and doesn't recall making that statement to Armstrong. "The daughter-in-law of Ernie Blessing is a good friend of mine," she says. "I don't remember any adverse things as a child growing up. We were all in the same boat."

Like many small towns in Texas and the Southwest, the history of Mansfield that is written in books belongs to the victors; those who constructed buildings, paved roads, cleared land, brought railroads, and carried on commerce. And so, much of Mansfield's recorded history begins with the first wave of white settlers who arrived at the rolling prairies of North Central Texas in the 1840s.

According to the Tarrant County Historic Resources Survey, most of these settlers were Scotch-Irish in origin, pioneer farmers mostly from southern states. Mansfield grew up around the grist mill owned by the town's namesakes, R.S. Mann and Julian Feild. The mill was built on what would become the city's crossroads: Main Street, which leads north toward Fort Worth, and Broad Street, which runs east and west.

Mansfield is still a growing town. Sub-divisions have sprung up on old farmlands, and chain restaurants and major stores such as Wal-Mart and Pier 1 Imports are locating shops within city limits. The town is becoming a bedroom community for Fort Worth, Arlington, and Dallas.

The history of black Mansfield, according to Solamillo's transcript, dates back to the 1850s. While no one has pinned down exact dates for the initial settlement, many of the city's first black residents are thought to have arrived as slaves sometime in the mid-1800s. The population remained relatively small until just after the turn of the century, when families began arriving from other parts of the country.

Maggie Briscoe, now 79, came to Mansfield from Bryan in 1925 when she was just eight years old. Briscoe was one of the seven longtime Mansfield residents interviewed for the oral history project. She says her family moved because a relative had said the living was easier in Mansfield.

Back in those days, sharecropping was the living, she says. And everyone had to work, even the children. "I didn't get to to school until the first part of September, because we picked cotton," Briscoe recalls.

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