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.

"If they ever did catch us, they probably would have thrown us down and raped us and tore us up to pieces," she says.

Briscoe's friends would stick close to a fence and run up a hill, knowing once they got to the crest, they'd be safe. At the top, there would be sharecroppers' houses lining the edge of the field. Houses meant people and help.

"They would chase us two or three times a week. But they never did catch us," she says.

In Mansfield, according to a draft of Solamillo's oral history report, these sorts of incidents were routine. "Such actions remained unquestioned and unmitigated in Mansfield society," Solamillo wrote.

The historic preservationist has a tough time telling a straight story, because people's memories are circular, not linear. That's a lesson Stan Solamillo learned while working on the Mansfield project.

Compiling an oral history requires more than just interviewing the subjects, he says. The interviews must be transcribed, and once they are, the information must be verified and set in some sort of context with the rest of known history. It is a painstaking process, made even more difficult by the pressures Solamillo imposed on himself.

From the beginning, he was determined not to allow Mansfield's oral history to end up like so many other black oral history projects done in Texas. He points to the Works Progress Administration's former slave narrative project done in the 1930s. The results, he says, were slanted and questionable. The interviewers took handwritten notes and never tape-recorded their subjects. The notes were transcribed into reports much later, and Solamillo says they don't appear to reflect the language of the interviewees.

"There was a lot of use of the 'N' word ascribed to the interviewees," Solamillo says. "We can't be sure whether that was real or not."

Solamillo is only a part-time preservationist. He works full time for the City of Dallas in its Target Neighborhoods program. Before that, he was an architect for 13 years. A normally intense man, Solamillo prides himself on maintaining a professional distance from his historical work. Such distance is precious for the preservationist. It helps keep things in perspective, allowing him to look at hurtful, sometimes embarrassing events of history dispassionately. It's a way to keep fair, he says.

But Mansfield got to him. He says he was struck by the courage of the interviewees. As he researched their tales, using funeral records, Tarrant County history books, and census information, he began to see a story--their story. He drew conclusions.

"I was struck by their humble strength," he says. "It is not arrogant. It is what heroes and heroines are, common people who do uncommon things."

A few months into the project, he found himself siding with the interviewees, whose history had been consigned to silence. He remembered his own untold history. His Filipino grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in the 1920s to work on a sugarcane plantation; he used to show Solamillo the old homestead whenever he went to visit. But the place was razed in the 1960s, long before Solamillo got a chance to learn anything about it.

Historic minority communities "are either built over or are in the process of disappearing," Solamillo says. "My concern is getting the generation of people who have these memories. The loss of material is irreplaceable."

He admits the Mansfield project dragged on far longer than it should have. Every time he tried to speed up the process, he discovered something else that warranted delving into. First it was desegregation. Then it was the Black Codes. As he wove these events into the oral history narrative, it began to haunt him. He began to lose perspective. Once he realized that, he called in other preservationists to help him gather information and edit his material.

"When I began to take five and six edits on a section, I realized it was too much," he says. "I needed other eyes to make sure that the narrative was correct."

What he has now, he says, is a more-than-200-page document, including edited and unedited transcripts of interviews with the black Mansfield residents. It is complete and accurate, he says.

The flap between the historical society and Bethlehem Baptist didn't surprise Solamillo. He'd done another project in another city that was met with surprise and denial, and realized that people don't like to have their perceptions challenged.

"It kind of hit me in the face as we were sitting there at that meeting," Solamillo says of the March 21 face-off between Allen and the historical society. "It was typically Southern, because it was like, 'We don't want to talk about that.' And I'm going, 'Well, wait a minute. You've got to talk about it. There are people still hurting from this. This is how we in our society grow. We have to sit and talk about it.'"

"Look, I just don't know why all this unfortunate business has happened," says Fran Nifong, the Mansfield Historical Society president. "I truly regret it. I just did what I thought was good for everybody."

Nifong is earnest when she says this. She describes herself as a Mansfield person. Charming and witty, she's an old-school Southern belle with silver-plate manners. For her, the inquiries she made and letters she wrote to city planner Felix Wong about the black oral history project were a practical means of monitoring what had happened to the money allocated for the project. She did what she did to benefit both the church and the historical society, she says--not to threaten Wong about the project's contents.

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