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.

The sharecropping life was arduous. While both black and white sharecroppers farmed for a cut of the landlord's crops, black workers were often left with very little to show for their hard work, Briscoe says. Oftentimes sharecroppers had to purchase seeds and other supplies from the farmer, all of which would be deducted from the harvest, leaving a meager profit.

"Sometimes, we'd pick three or four bales [of cotton] before I heard [my father] say he cleared any," Briscoe says. "It was kind of rough. But we survived. That's just how it was back then."

Mansfield had experienced its most rapid stage of growth early this century, fueled by waves of displaced white Southerners looking to start new lives in Texas, and black families looking for better opportunities. But like many small towns in Texas, Mansfield's black residents had to abide by the "Black Codes"--laws structured to limit the freedom of black people. They were adopted throughout Texas in 1891.

In a section of the oral history draft titled "A Society of Meanness," Mansfield under Jim Crow is portrayed as "the geographical and political backwaters of the state." The town's isolation guaranteed that its racist local customs would be carried out without much question or scrutiny. Blacks effectively were prevented from voting by such devices as a poll tax and land ownership requirements.

Today, Mansfield is famous for two things. It was the home of author Howard Griffin, who wrote Black Like Me, first published in 1961. In the book, Griffin, a white man, darkens his skin through a special dermatological process and travels throughout the South to experience what life was like as a black man.

Mansfield is also the site of the first school desegregation case in Texas. In 1956, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, on behalf of a black Mansfield resident named T.M. Moody and a handful of black schoolchildren, sued the Mansfield School District, seeking desegregation of Mansfield High School. A state appeals court issued the desegregation order, but it was met by tremendous resistance from Mansfield's white population.

Hundreds of whites gathered around Mansfield High School the day the black students were supposed to register, waiting for the children to show up. The world watched as white residents hanged a black person in effigy from the school flagpole, while another was strung up elsewhere in town. Neither the local police nor the Texas Rangers would provide protection for the students to register. In the end, the students didn't, opting instead to continue the more than 90-minute one-way bus ride to Fort Worth to attend segregated I.M. Terrell High. Mansfield schools were finally desegregated in 1965, but only after the federal government threatened to withhold education subsidies.

These events are all part of the town lore, known to most anyone who lives in Mansfield. What the oral history project brought out were the everyday stings of racism--small acts for which every white person living in Mansfield was guilty. Looking back, every resident could consider the events surrounding desegregation and deplore them. With hindsight, they were easily identified as evil. But the little things--the "local customs"--were much more difficult to acknowledge or disown. Everyone in Mansfield at the time participated, either directly or indirectly by allowing these customs to remain in place. The oral history interview subjects showed that these small acts of bigotry hurt far more than the sight of burning effigies.

McClendon Moody, a distant relative of desegregation plaintiff T.M. Moody, recalled in the oral history project how black shoppers on Main Street were treated back then.

"It was meanness going on then," he says in the report. "You don't walk through a store unless you buy something. And if you wanted to buy a pair of shoes, pants, shirt, whatever, you better know your size because you didn't put them on or pull them off."

Today, Moody admits he has a love-hate relationship with Mansfield. He hates its past, but admires what his city is becoming. Moody, 68, a cook by trade, became the city's first democratically elected black city council member in 1988. Two small parks and a city street bear his name. During interviews, however, he still recalls the slights, petty harassments, and intimidations that were part of daily life in earlier days.

"A guy was making a U-turn and ran into me," Moody says in the transcript. "I got the ticket...just because I was on the front street. I wasn't supposed to have been there."

Maggie Briscoe says she had no real troubles with white people in Mansfield, but fear always marked the interactions between blacks and whites.

"Tell you the truth, I've always been a little afraid of white men," Briscoe says. In her mind, that fear was justified by experience. As a child, Briscoe and some friends had to cut across a field while walking home from school. A group of four or five white boys would often lie in wait for the girls and chase them. Briscoe and her friends would run for their very lives, fearing what would happen if the boys caught them.

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